New Jersey Ag News
Orton discusses Rutgers 250 tomato
By RICHARD SKELLY
NEW BRUNSWICK (July 1, 2016) — The Rutgers Plant Pathology Laboratory on ground zero for shipments of packets of Rutgers 250 seeds, has sold out of the crop, said Dr. Thomas Orton, one who spearheaded a team of researchers at Rutgers in developing the new Rutgers 250 tomato, so named to recognize the 250th anniversary of the founding of what was then known as Queens College in 1766 along the Raritan River in New Brunswick.
Orton is based in Southern New Jersey and mostly works out of the Rutgers Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Bridgeton.
He recently talked with The New Jersey Farmer about developing the variety.
NJF: Tell us about the genesis of this Rutgers 250 seed project?
Orton: We started about six years ago and at that time we were collaborating with Campbell’s Soup on some projects. And they let us know they still had some seed stocks that were used to develop the original Rutgers variety back in the 1930’s.
We weren’t aware of that and all the foundation seed stock of the variety for Rutgers as far as we knew, were also lost.
We thought it would be a fun and interesting project to recapitulate the Rutgers variety. At that time Campbell’s was undergoing a reorganization and they kind of backed out of the project at that point, citing wide sweeping changes at the company.
NJF: When did seeds become available to the general public?
Orton: We went through this breeding program, two generations per year, the last five years, to develop a finished, open pollinated variety. We did obtain some public funding from the Northeast Sustainable Ag Research in Education Program, to conduct an extensive evaluation of the breeding lines and we went through an evaluation last year and last November , there were 18 of us that met to decide on one of the three varieties that would become the Rutgers 250. We also produced seeds of the three varieties last summer because we didn’t know which one would become the chosen one.
When we got to the point where we started distribution, we had to begin process in December of printing all the packets and identifying the contractors involved and beginning in February of this year, we began to distribute them through Rohrer Seed in Eastern Pennsylvania, who also handled commercial sales of the Ramapo tomato [Developed by the late Ernie Pollack of East Brunswick.]
NJF: Is this a cross-breed of Ramapo and some old Rutgers tomato developed back in the ’30s?
Orton: It’s a cross breed of two different old heirloom varieties. One was JTD, was an old Campbell soup variety, developed by John T. Dorens, the inventor of condensed soup at Campbell’s. The other parent was an old heirloom called Marglobe that you might have grown in your garden at some point.
They were state-of-the-art 100 years ago, and we made this cross and didn’t have much hope for it initially. By the time we got to later generations, we had a couple things that looked quite good, the vine type and color and firmness was quite good. And one of these was chosen to be this variety Rutgers 250. We think it’s going to be an excellent garden variety.
NJF: When we met with Richard J. Buckley at RU Plant Pathology Lab in New Brunswick in late February, his assistant had one week’s worth of mail that had 240 requests for Rutgers 250 tomato seeds.
Orton: We didn’t really publicize it outside the state, because this thing was bred for the Mid-Atlantic Region and it was bred exclusively in New Jersey for New Jersey. Now we’ve had a lot of interest outside the state, about a month ago we had an article in The New York Times about the tomato, and that generated a lot more interest. It may eventually be adapted to other climates in other areas, it’s possible it may not do so well in other parts of the country. New Jersey is actually a good place to do plant breeding because it’s stressful from standpoint of insect disease pressure and weather pressure, we get just about everything here, so it if tends to do well here it tends to do well elsewhere, but there’s no guarantee.
This was intended to be a garden variety but it will have some implications with small commercial growers as well, and I don’t think it’s firm enough to go into general commercial production. The good news is it was selected for consumer quality, how well did it do in tasting tastes and in the lab, and that’s not the way many supermarkets tend to look at it.
NJF: We can’t credit everybody involved, but who else did you work closely with on this Rutgers 250 project?
Orton: The Morris County Agriculture Extension Agent, Peter Nitzsche were co-investigators on this project. He did all the evaluations and I did more the breeding side of it.
NJF: The New York Times story was a shot in the arm, and now you’re sold out of Rutgers 250 tomato seeds. How many packets of seeds were put together?
Orton: I believe it was about 5,000 packets of seeds distributed by Rich and Sabrina at the plant diagnostic lab and Cindy Rovins in our communications office at SEBS in New Brunswick helped to coordinate things as well. Rich and Sabrina are a bit less busy during the winter, but in the long term, if this thing grows bigger, we’ll have to figure out some other way to handle this, because we are a research university, not a seed company.
I think the seeds have the potential to generate revenue for the university, and we’re looking to develop a commercial F1 hybrid version that has a bit more firmness and some of the flavor attributes as well. We’re trying to create a fruit that’ll withstand some shipping and still have the flavor attributes, so that’s the next phase we’re now in.
It’s great for public awareness because there are people from all walks of life who are gardeners. We’ve had interest from all kinds of different people. We’ve taken many of our fruits and vegetables down the wrong path, something that looks good and can be shipped. But the statement we’re making is that we need to be working on things that bring people nutrition and culinary value as well as go 5,000 miles without so many bumps and bruises on it.
That was really the bigger picture on this project.