WILLSBORO — For those tending vegetable gardens in the North Country, tomatoes are most likely the most common and treasured crop. They can also be beset with problems.
Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), in conjunction with the Baker Research Farm in Willsboro, has been at the forefront in developing new varieties, preserving and promoting heritage assortments and finding ways to combat molds and other problems that plague the juicy fruits.
VALUED CROP STATEWIDE
According to CCE, “In 2013, Empire State farmers planted 2,900 acres of tomatoes for an estimated value of $32.4 million. Most field production is devoted to determinate cultivars with plastic mulch, drip irrigation and stake-and-weave trellises essential production elements for early and quality yields."
Determinate tomatoes, also called bush tomatoes, grow to a compact height, approximately four feet. They stop growing when fruit sets on the top bud, ripen all their crop at or near the same time usually over a two-week period, and then they die.
Indeterminate varieties, or vining tomatoes, produce fruit all season until killed by frost and can reach heights of 10 feet.
Greenhouse and high-tunnel production is on the rise in New York with structures of less than one tenth to in excess of 40 acres under protection. High tunnel is a fairly large, semi-circular tent-like plastic covering.
Indeterminate, greenhouse lines, as well as heirloom varieties, are grown under protected cultivation. Tomatoes are a popular crop with New York fresh market vegetable farmers due to high demand and fair prices. The Cornell Vegetable Program conducts a number of research projects each year addressing improved tomato production.
“A lot of people want the heirloom varieties, and many don’t want to try the new ones as they claim they don’t taste as good,” said Amy Ivy, Cornell Extension educator.
She then had attendees at a workshop at the Baker Farm taste approximately 10 varieties, which in addition to the heirloom varieties had names like Primo Red, Red Deuce, Clermon, Geronimo and Rebelski.
Several of the aforementioned varieties are intended for greenhouse production, and thus are not as common as the garden varieties such as Beefsteak.
COVERED CULTIVATION POPULAR
Judson Reid, a state vegetable specialist from Cornell Cooperative Extension, provided insight about high-tunnel agriculture, more specifically growing tomatoes in these structures.
High tunnel and greenhouse agriculture can be more profitable due to higher yields, generally 20 pounds per plant but as much as 30 pounds have been recorded. There is also the ability to plant earlier and extend into the fall due to more moderate temperatures. However, once mold or other pathogens have been introduced on a few plants, the rest are more susceptible in the semi-enclosed environment.
“A challenge to tomato growers is how to prune. It takes a lot of attention. You don’t just prune once. Pruning also allows more nutrients to go to the tomatoes and allows for better air flow between plants. It’s primarily a job you have to stay ahead of,” Reid said.
Determining which variety to produce for sale is generally determined by customer preferences. How tomatoes look is more likely to attract more business, especially in the supermarkets. At farm stands and farmers markets, the consumer can be given a sample to taste.
“What we are trying to produce are disease-resistant plants, but they are not always the best tasting,” Reid explained.
The workshop terminated at the Carriage House Garden Center in Willsboro to allow for Michael McCauliffe to discuss a variety of problems he has been having growing tomatoes. To counteract leaf mold, McCauliffe showed off his plants in which the leaves were coated with copper hydroxide.
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