State tomato growers look to distinguish their crops from others

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:52

    New Jersey's tomato growers are finding that consumers want more than just great taste _ they want tomatoes that look good, too. And that's a challenge when tomatoes from other regions are ripened with chemicals to give them a uniformly round shape. ``People have changed their expectations over the years. They want them to be nice and round and bright red. And they don't want them to be bruised,'' Judy Cowan, who sells tomatoes at farm markets in Cape May County, told The Press of Atlantic City for Sunday newspapers. The tougher competition has caused tomato growers to lobby the state Department of Agriculture to adopt tougher standards on what can be called a vine-ripened tomato. The farmers want the new rules to require that a tomato receive half its natural color on the vine to receive the designation. ``We have to compete with these other tomatoes. The consumer looks at the label and says, ‘Well, they're vine ripened.' But then they taste like cardboard,'' said David Sheppard, production manager for Sheppard Farms in Cumberland County's Lawrence Township. Sheppard and others like him complain that mass producers achieve much of the color of their tomatoes artificially. The tomatoes are gassed with ethylene, a chemical version of the hormone that naturally ripens tomatoes. While use of ethylene makes it easier to ship tomatoes, taste is sometimes sacrificed, according to some experts. ``When you pick a tomato while it's green, the natural sugars in the tomato haven't formed,'' said Michelle Infante-Casella, an agricultural agent for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension's Gloucester County office.