Photo Credit to Patrick Dunn - La Honda Farmers Market
Tomatoes are by far one of the most prized and valued vegetable crops on the market these days. The
mere number of varieties, types and growth techniques are head spinning. From heirloom to hybrid,
beefsteak to paste, hot-house to dry-farmed, and the ever more popular grafted tomatoes, it’s hard
to keep up with what’s what these days. This is the first in a series of articles that will try to
alleviate the ails of understanding tomato culture and describe the most popular growth techniques
as well as get to the bottom of what all the hype is about.
Heirloom vs Hybrid
First let’s start with the basics. What is the difference between an “heirloom” variety and a
Heirloom - A plant variety that is open-pollinated (meaning it is pollinated naturally by
wind, insect, human or other natural mechanisms) and has been passed down through generations.
Hybrid - A plant variety that has been naturally or artificially cross pollinated using
controlled pollination methods. This can occur naturally through cross pollination, but hybrid
varieties are typically created in a controlled field or lab setting.
There are many pros and cons to both types of tomato. Many farmers choose between the two based on
their marketing structure, growing techniques and season. Also, if a farmer is interested in saving
seed from their tomato crops it is extremely important to understand the difference and plan
accordingly. Saving seeds from hybrid types will not produce the same tomato the following year.
Photo credit to Patrick Dunn - Benaroya Family Farm
Flavor - Typically hybrid varieties are less flavorful than heirlooms since they are
often bred for productivity and disease resistance than for flavor. This isn’t always
true though, some seed companies try to develop hybrids that are more flavorful as well,
like the Early Girl or the Sungold, and more and more are being developed.
Seed Instability - Since Hybrids are cross pollinated, saving seed is not recommended
and will most likely not produce plants similar to the mother plants. There are many
people who have been trying to de-hybridize some varieties, by selecting from saved
hybrid seed but this is a lengthy process.
Bio-tech Industry - Many hybrid seeds are owned and produced by the large Biotech companies
like Monsanto and Syngenta. If you are highly opposed to their practices and philosophies,
make sure you research varieties before buying them. Many of the common hybrids are owned by
these large companies and a quick Google search can help you understand this.
Perhaps these lists didn’t make it any easier to choose the best since they both have such
wonderful positive attributes and are accompanied by some drawbacks. As always, it is important to
understand the farm’s specific needs, growth culture and marketing structure in order to choose what
type of tomato is best. The endless pages of tomato varieties in seed catalogs is always the best
place to start, and have fun experimenting with the myriad of juicy summer yumminess!
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Patrick Dunn has been farming for over 9 years and his experience ranges from production
scale market farming to community based urban agriculture. He studied at the Center for
Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC and co-founded Emerald Street Community
Farm and Master Street Farm in Philadelphia, PA. When Patrick isn't farming, you can find
him dangling from ropes high on the granite walls of Yosemite or jetting off to the
mountains for solitude in the wilderness.