Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum) are the most popular of heirloom vegetables, which are vintage varieties preserved by passing seed down from generation to generation. Heirloom tomato purchases grew in popularity as consumers sought flavorful, historic varieties. Many heirloom tomato varieties have unique coloration and appearance, but poor shipping characteristics, giving heirloom tomatoes an advantage for local sales.
Heirloom tomatoes are grown primarily for fresh market sales. Direct markets for heirloom varieties include farmers markets, roadside stands, local grocery stores and community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions. There are also wholesale opportunities available, especially from buyers willing to pay premium prices for locally grown tomatoes. Those may include restaurants, food co-ops, specialty grocers and some institutional foodservice.
Choosing an heirloom cultivar can be a challenge as there are hundreds of different heirlooms available. Tomato cultivars differ in fruit characteristics (e.g. size, color, shape, flavor and intended use), earliness (early, mid- and late-season), and disease resistance. Cultivars also differ in growth habit, classified as either determinate (bush with a limited production season) or indeterminate (vining with a longer production season). Adaptability to local conditions and suitability to intended production practices must also be considered. Other factors that can dictate varietal selection for fresh markets are consumer demand and regional preferences. Growers should select heirloom varieties that have the qualities in demand for the intended market. For heirloom varieties, this may be complicated by consumers being unable to distinguish differences in taste between heirlooms and newer hybrids. Past University of Kentucky variety trials and taste tests of both heirloom and hybrid varieties indicated taste panelists liked flavors of both heirloom and hybrid varieties.