Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarp) is a small edible fruit in the Solanaceae family. A tan to straw-colored calyx covers the fruit-like a husk, giving rise to the common name of “husk tomato.” Native to Mexico and Guatemala, these tomato-like fruits are a key ingredient in a number of Latin American recipes, including salsa and chili sauces. Tomatillo may have potential as a specialty crop in some areas of Kentucky.
Tomatillos are sold by Kentucky farms through direct marketing channels, including farmers markets, CSAs and roadside stands. Market potential may be greater at farmers markets in areas with larger Hispanic populations. Local groceries, as well as restaurants specializing in Mexican or vegetarian dishes, may be interested in purchasing locally grown tomatillos. Production of tomatillo for direct sale to smaller specialty food manufacturers, or for use in foods prepared by the producer, may also be an option for Kentucky growers. Large-scale production requires accessing wholesale marketing channels. Most fresh market shipments are sourced from Mexico and California; Florida and Michigan also ship through the commercial fresh market in the summer. Prospective growers should be sure of access to a market channel prior to planting on a large scale. The wholesale processing tomatillo market is largely supplied by production from Mexico; as of 2016, in-season produce terminal prices for processing tomatillos remained below the estimated cost of production in Kentucky. The popularity of ethnic cuisine and an increasing U.S. Hispanic population helped establish tomatillo as a nationwide commodity within wholesale produce marketing channels. Producers considering growing tomatillo will likely have more success with fresh market retail sales in larger urban areas such as Louisville, Lexington, or Cincinnati.
Tomatillo is a highly variable crop with cultivars differing in plant habit, days to harvest, fruit flavor, and fruit size (¾-inch to 2½ inches). The fruit color at ripening is usually yellow to green, although some varieties may be wholly or partially purple. Growers should select only adapted varieties that have the qualities in demand for the intended market. Tomatillos are grown very much like field tomatoes.