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2005 Heirloom Tomato Study

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This article was published in 2017 and is maintained for historical reference.

Mountain Research Station, Waynesville, NC
Project Leaders: Dr. Randy Gardner and Dr. Jeanine Davis
Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University


materThere is a strong market for heirloom tomatoes. Consumers say they taste better and have thinner skins than “regular tomatoes”. There is a nostalgic attraction for the “ole timey’ varieties that Grandma used to grow. Heirloom varieties also come in many interesting colors and shapes and have fun names that just make them different from the standard tomato. The market for ORGANIC heirloom tomatoes is particularly strong.

This should be an excellent opportunity for local growers, except that heirloom tomatoes have several production problems. Most heirloom tomatoes have little or no disease resistance. This makes organic production, in particular, very difficult. In a wet season, like we are having this year, heirloom varieties fall victim to blight before they get the chance to yield much fruit. Heirloom varieties have a tendency to crack and are very rough in appearance, which makes them difficult to pack and sell commercially. Tomato breeder, Dr. Randy Gardner, has developed several new disease resistant experimental hybrids with heirloom qualities. Hopefully, these new hybrids will have the flavor of heirlooms but with the desired qualities of standard commercial tomatoes, e.g., disease resistance, uniform size, and good shipping characteristics.


To determine if the new heirloom-type hybrids 1) have consumer acceptance as having the flavor of heirloom tomatoes and 2) can be successfully grown in organic and conventional production systems.


Seven varieties of tomatoes are being grown in two plots. In one plot the tomatoes are being grown using conventional practices as recommended by the N.C. Cooperative Extensive Service, including synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and insecticides. In the other plot, tomatoes are being grown using organic practices as approved by the National Organic Program, including organic soil amendments and organic disease control. In both plots, the tomatoes are grown on raised beds with black plastic and drip-irrigation and high trellises. The varieties grown are German Johnson, Mr. Stripey, Cherokee Purple, NC 0455, NC 0571, NC 0576, and NC 05114. Transplants were set on June 2, 10 plants per plot, and pruned to a single stem.

Preliminary Results:

Organic Trial  TRT # of 25 lb Boxes/Acre Ounces /Fruit Comments
German Johnson 2 1479 9.9 yellow shoulder, radial crack, some kidney shape, some burst, rough
Cherokee Purple 3 1420 8.0 severe cracking, yellow shoulder, rough, kidney shape, some burst
NC 0455 4 989 6.4 some cracking, some yellow shoulder, some BER, good shape
NC 0571 5 945 6.6 some cracking, some yellow shoulder, good shape, some BER
NC 0576 6 1085 7.0 some BER, some cracking, good shape, few zippers
NC 05114 7 833 1.8 good shape, no cracking
Conventional Trial TRT # of 25 lb Boxes/Acre Ounces /Fruit Comments
Mr. Stripey 1 873 14.3 deep radial cracking, rough, burst, some BER, some ribbing
German Johnson 2 1152 9.2 some yellow shoulder, radial crack, ribbed, rough, some kidney shape
Cherokee Purple 3 1244 7.6 severe crack, green shoulders, burst, rough, kidney shape
NC 0455 4 811 6.0 slight cracking, slight BER, good shape, good color
NC 0571 5 797 6.6 slight cracking, slight BER, good shape
NC 0576 6 926 6.5 slight cracking, slight BER, good shape
NC 05114 7 606 1.5 good shape, no cracking
Means for 4, 6-plant replicates for each trial harvest at 4 weekly harvests (8/2-8/22/05).
Varieties #4-#7 are early blight and late blight resistant experimental hybrids.

Taste Test Results (56 people):

Overall Rating Percentage (%)
Very Good Good Disliked
Mr. Stripey 49 42 9
German Johnson 25 56 19
Cherokee Purple 54 39 7
NC 0455 18 64 18
NC 0571 32 42 26
NC 0576 29 57 14
NC 05114 47 40 13

Percentage that indicated this was their favorite:

Mr. Stripey 30
German Johnson 6
Cherokee Purple 21.5
NC 0455 6
NC 0571 9
NC 0576 6
NC 05114 21.5

This study is a project of the N.C. Specialty Crops Program, a cooperative venture between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University and the Marketing Division at the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This project is funded in part by a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation. We wish to thank the staff at the Mountain Research Station for all their support without which, this would not be possible. Technical support has been provided by Candice Anderson, Beth Dixon, David Grimsley, Vicky Heatherly, Agatha Kaplan, Chris Leek, and Erica Piela. Marketing assistance is provided by Stephanie Wise, NCDA&CS.

Funding for this project provided by: Golden Leaf Foundation

Authored by Jeanine Davis, NC Alternative Crops & Organics Program, Department of Horticultural Science, NC State University. Reviewed on 7/17/2022.