Tomatoes Developed by University of Idaho Breeders Will Be Available for Sale this May

Friday, May 21 2010

Written by Marlene Fritz

CALDWELL, Idaho—During the 1970s, former University of Idaho horticulturist Art Boe set out to develop short-season tomatoes for northern Idaho’s high-elevation sites. In Parma, colleague Bill Simpson had been developing tomatoes for dramatically different conditions—commercial production in southern Idaho’s relatively long seasons—since the 1950s.

This spring, University of Idaho Extension Educator Ariel Agenbroad of Canyon County is coordinating a Master Gardener seed grow-out and limited sales of about 200 of these 10 or so open-pollinated varieties. Agenbroad and the Ada and Canyon County Master Gardeners methodically multiplied much of the seed last year.

The tomatoes will be sold for $2 per 4-inch potted plant at the Caldwell Farmers’ Market on Wednesday, May 26 and the Nampa Farmers’ Market on Saturday, May 31. Any remaining plants will then be available at the Canyon County Extension Office at 501 Main St. in Caldwell the first week of June. Proceeds support Master Gardener scholarships, community service projects and horticulture education for youth, adults and seniors in Canyon County. For more information, contact Agenbroad at (208) 459-6003 in Caldwell.

Most of Boe’s and Simpson’s tomatoes are short and productive, with small, tasty and early fruit, says Agenbroad. “Some of the Master Gardeners told me their University of Idaho tomatoes were the first to produce last year, out of all of the ones they were growing.”

In Owyhee County last summer, Advanced Master Gardener Jan Aman was harvesting her University of Idaho-developed tomatoes before the Fourth of July. She had grown—and meticulously compared—all of the varieties Agenbroad had given her. “They did not get any special treatment—I fertilized them once—and by and large they’re good tomatoes,” Aman said. She described the early, compact Sandpoint and Shoshone as “very productive, with continued steady yield of delicious, juicy, bright red fruits that are slightly larger than cherry tomatoes. They would be wonderful on patios.”

Added Aman: “I think in today’s age, buyers are looking for something unique. University of Idaho-bred tomatoes should certainly be a great seller.”

Agenbroad, who recently compiled 2009 production reports from over a dozen participating Master Gardeners, agrees, “The plants themselves won’t win any beauty contests, but they don’t require staking, and the yields have been fantastic. And we get a kick out of growing tomatoes with names like Gem State, Ida Gold, and Latah.”

Extension Educator Jo Ann Robbins of Jerome County evaluated a number of University of Idaho-developed tomatoes in the late 1990s in both Hailey and Buhl and has since chosen a personal favorite: Payette.

“It only gets 3 ½ feet tall and sets all these big, beautiful, mild-flavored fruit,” Robbins said. “I like it so much I’ve raised it every year.” This year, she’ll add Owyhee, a Simpson variety that may offer some protection against the curly top virus that plagues Robbins’ home garden in Buhl.

At Sand Hill Preservation Center in Calamus, Iowa, genetic preservationist and Idaho native Glenn Drowns has been a seed enthusiast since his childhood days in Salmon. Drowns picked up some of Boe’s short-season varieties in 1978, while still a junior in high school, and continues to plant them along with about 650 other tomato varieties.

“A lot of people in mountainous areas are thrilled to get them because of their earliness and their ability to grow well in cooler conditions,” Drowns said of Boe’s tomatoes. Last summer, when Iowa’s typical heat and humidity never came, the Idaho-bred tomatoes “were plunking along with the greatest strength.”

Boe, who left the University of Idaho in 1983 to lead North Dakota State University’s horticulture department, recalls shipping much-appreciated tomato seed to Alaska and Canada. Now co-owner of the wholesale North Star Seed & Nursery in Faribault, Minn., he develops bedding plants and shrubs, including a Proven Winners® pyramidal arborvitae named for him. Upon learning of Agenbroad’s project, Boe said it “feels good to have done something people are still interested in.”