Customers who purchase heirloom tomatoes from market growers are willing to pay more for the flavor of unique varieties, whether it’s a sweet and tangy “Fargo” yellow pear tomato or the rich traditional taste of a San Marzano or Costoluto Genovese, one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites in his garden at Monticello. If you’ve been selling at the farmers market for a while, you’ll notice customers will often ask for their favorite varieties from previous years. That’s the power of a great tasting tomato!
Before exploring individual varieties, it’s important to understand the two primary growth habits of tomato plants – determinate, or bush-type tomatoes, and indeterminates, or tomato plants that can grow as high as you let them – literally. Quite a few growers competing for world record status have grown indeterminate tomato plants that reach 15-20 feet in height and produce 200-300 pounds of fruit per plant!
Most market growers agree indeterminate tomato plants have better flavor than determinates. So why grow bush tomatoes at all? Because they require less labor, such as pruning and trellising, to produce the same amount of tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes also have a more concentrated yield, tending to ripen in a shorter period, as opposed to the longer production and harvest period of indeterminates.
Qualities to look for when picking the best varieties to grow and sell are flavor, disease resistance, days to maturity and yield.
Flavor – If it doesn’t taste good, nothing else really matters to consumers, so be sure to choose great-tasting varieties. Seed suppliers will almost always provide that information.
Days to maturity – Fit the growth cycle to your local climate. Growers who live in colder areas will need to choose fast growing varieties, while those in warmer areas have more varieties to choose from.
Yield – Don’t waste your time growing varieties that do not produce an abundant yield, as your profits are determined by how many pounds you sell. The exception would be growers who also produce plants to sell to consumers in the spring, who may not be as concerned about yields.
Disease resistance – Although good plant care can keep most common plant diseases from becoming a problem, avoid any varieties that tend to be disease prone. Seed suppliers are generally candid about this, as are online tomato resources.
To get you started, here are a few popular heirloom tomato varieties to consider, with an emphasis on early-maturing varieties that will thrive in cooler climates with a shorter growing season. First- the determinate, or bush, varieties. Market growers like bush varieties because they can be grown in an inexpensive “low-tunnel” hoop house, which can improve yields dramatically. Determinate varieties are also a great money maker at the start of the season for plant sales to consumers who are looking for compact plants for a patio, balcony or container garden. Here are three that have been popular for years:
- Beaverlodge Slicer – An ideal compact tomato plant that produces 2” red, round tomatoes with a rich taste. Matures in only 54 days, so this is a good variety for northern growers. Also a proven seller for customers looking for a take-home plant for the patio.
- Golden Nugget – Another extra-early (just 54 days) plant that produces huge amounts of golden, sweet cherry tomatoes. These tasty tomatoes always sell out fast at the Saturday market.
- Principe Borghese – Produces big clusters of small plum/paste tomatoes that are better tasting than the more common Roma variety. This variety originated in Italy, where growers often pull up the whole plant, full of fruit, and hang it to dry for future use, such as in olive-oil based sun-dried tomatoes.
Fast maturing, indeterminate, or vining, tomatoes are also popular in cooler areas that have a shorter growing season. Three popular varieties are:
- Stupice – A wonderfully sweet heirloom from Czechoslovakia that matures in just 52 days and does well in cooler coastal areas and colder inland areas.
- Ildi – This very early grape tomato matures in 54 days and produces huge amounts of sweet, bright yellow fruit in clusters of 30-60 tomatoes. You may have seen these in a farmers market, labelled by the common name, Yellow Grape.
- Buckbee’s New 50 Day – One of the earliest maturing varieties, this heirloom produces great tasting red round fruit. At 50 days to maturity, this variety can be grown successfully in cooler, short season locations.
No matter where you live, there are heirloom varieties that can produce a bountiful crop and a good income for market growers. Of course, the farther south you go, the more tomato variety choices are available. To learn more about how to grow and market heirloom tomatoes, read Profitable Heirloom Tomatoes, which includes profit-boosting growing tips and techniques, 40 of the proven best selling varieties and seed sources for hundreds of heirloom varieties.