Home gardeners, get ready for the chance to plant a little New Jersey nostalgia in your backyard this spring.
The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) recently released the new “Rutgers 250” tomato seeds for sale, introducing an improved version of the classic Rutgers tomato – which is what most people think of as the Jersey tomato.
The tomato seeds can be purchased through the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station’s website, but are in very limited supply, said Tom Orton, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology.
Rutgers 250 tomato plants will also be available at the Middlesex County Master Gardener plant sale during Rutgers Day on April 30, and at other events and farm markets this spring.
The Rutgers 250 tomato is promising to add a burst of flavor to salads and sandwiches that most supermarket varieties lack. It is the result of several years of work by a team of researchers who strove to reinvent a historically significant variety and was named in celebration of Rutgers’ milestone 250th anniversary.
“The Rutgers tomato was a variety that had defined a whole industry,’’ Orton said. “At one point in time most of the tomatoes grown around the world were the Rutgers variety. It was grown for both fresh market and for processing – and dwarfed everything else.’’
The Rutgers tomato became synonymous with the Jersey tomato and the culinary experience of eating something fresh from the garden, Orton said.
“It’s what you think of when you think back to the tomatoes you had when you were younger and they came right off the vine into your house and you cut into them and they were red and the flavor was bursting,’’ said Orton, who oversees the university’s tomato breeding program as a specialist with NJAES.
Photo: Courtesy of Cindy Rovins
About 2,000 seed packets of the new Rutgers 250 are available this year for the debut.
The original Rutgers tomato was released in 1934 as the result of a collaboration between the Campbell Soup Co. and the university. When the original Rutgers tomato was developed, it was considered more resistant to cracking than its predecessors and became a staple ingredient in the Campbell’s soup product line.
It was used by several other large companies including Hunt’s and Heinz, and was popular on American dinner tables for decades. But like many innovations of the era, the Rutgers tomato was developed without a patent, and seed companies made changes to it over time.
The new variety has a firmer skin and acid and sugar balance reminiscent of the original Rutgers tomato, said Peter Nitzsche, an associate professor and agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension who has been working with Orton on the project.
“The Rutgers 250 has that traditional Jersey tomato flavor with a little bit of bite and complexity,’’ Nitzsche said. “We are hoping it mimics the same flavor people remember from the original Rutgers tomato, but from a new variety with a better plant and fruit quality.’’
About 2,000 seed packets of the new Rutgers 250 are available this year for the debut, Orton said. But NJAES will sell a nearly identical second new tomato variety, the Rutgers250 Schermerhorn (named for Lyman Schermerhorn, the breeder of the original Rutgers tomato) when they run out of the Rutgers 250. Rutgers 250 seeds will be more widely available for sale next spring.
Orton is also working to develop a version of the new Rutgers tomato suitable for large-scale commercial farmers that should be ready in 2018.
“The purpose of the Rutgers 250 celebration is to have us look back and appreciate what has come before us and what has made us what we are today,’’ Orton said. “The Rutgers 250 tomato celebrates our strong agricultural heritage, which includes the development of many new varieties of plants that became an important part of commerce in New Jersey, in the region, and the world.”
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