The University of Florida's tomato breeding program has hit a home run with Tasti-Lee, a truly vine-ripe tomato with a home-grown taste, deep red color and high lycopene levels.
Jay Scott, the UF tomato breeder responsible for Tasti-Lee, points to the continued stream of consumer e-mails he receives asking where they can buy the fruit as evidence of its popularity.
So different is the entire production and marketing program that Brix isn't even a singular goal.
"We don't talk about Brix," says Greg Styers, sales and product development for Bejo Seeds Inc. in Swannanoa, N.C. "We talk about the balance of flavors.
"What we're going for is that old-time home garden flavor."
Bejo Seeds is the exclusive distributor of Tasti-Lee seeds.
Home gardeners can contact Twilly Seed at (800) 622-7333 for seed.
Despite the variety's apparent success, it hasn't been an easy road, Scott and Styers say.
Scott spent 10 years developing the variety using conventional breeding techniques. Many of the traits responsible for flavor were linked to other undesirable characteristics.
At the same time, five years were spent to develop a brand and market for the variety, Styers says.
Tasti-Lee is being marketed by Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets in five southeastern states.
San Antonio, Texas-based H-E-B will market them in Texas.
Tasti-Lee is positioned as a premium tomato and features identifying decals and point-of-sale placards.
"It's not easy to brand produce," Styers says.
Changing growers' mindset hasn't been easy, either.
"It's been a struggle to convince growers that they could grow truly vine-ripe tomatoes," he says. "The first question they ask is,'How does it handle gas?'"
The answer is Tasti-Lee is never exposed to ethylene, Styers says.
Bejo Seeds is registering growers to produce the crop.
Styers compared it to franchising a brand, where growers will have to meet specific quality standards in order to affix the Tasti-Lee decal to the fruit.
So far, the firm has two growers registered in Florida and one in North Carolina.
"Each of the registered growers is reaching out to other Florida growers to grow the product for them," he says. "We're bringing on as many in Florida as it makes sense."