Nothing captures summertime in New England like fresh, locally-grown heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms have captured the imaginations of chefs and the hearts of farmers’ market shoppers, who just can’t seem to get enough of them; they are the poster fruit of the “buy fresh, buy local” movement. Small farmers have responded to the opportunity with gusto, but it hasn’t come without its challenges, namely, that heirlooms are prone to unpredictable flavors, a short shelf life, irregular shapes and sizes, cracks, splits, and blemishes.
Despite these drawbacks, farmers are willing to assume the production risks to bring an allegedly better-tasting tomato to market, and consumers are certainly willing to pay for the experience. Knowing that taste quality varies considerably in the heirloom tomato market, both within and between varieties, we wanted to better understand how farmers choose to grow and market heirlooms. Our Research included in-depth interviews with fifteen Massachusetts heirloom tomato growers who sell at farmers’ markets to explore these questions:
(1) How do they decide how many and which varieties to grow?
(2) Why do some lump their heirlooms together in one colorful display while others separate and identify the varieties?
(3) How do they consider tomato flavor and texture when making broader production and marketing decisions?….
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