PROJECT LEADER(S): Stephanie Wise, Marketing Specialist, NC Dept of Agriculture & Consumer Services
There is a growing interest not only in specialty crops but also in locally grown produce throughout Western N.C. Select heirloom tomatoes were grown in Haywood County at the Mountain Research Station to test production in this region of specific varieties. Tomatoes from this research/demonstration garden were then used to determine consumer preferences and marketability in Western N.C.
Consumers were given opportunities to sample heirloom tomato varieties at the Waynesville Tailgate Market, the WNC Farmersí Market and the Grove Arcade in Asheville, N.C. Large selections of tomatoes were sampled at each location. However, with the variations in harvest, not all varieties were available for sampling at each location. Due to this variation, a true statistical analysis of the results could not be made beyond basic chef and consumer interests and preferences.
One of the primary conclusions for the taste testings is consumers in Western N.C. are looking for the diversity offered by specialty crops such as heirloom tomatoes. The population in general prefers the taste of these old garden favorites to those they find in the local grocer.
While conducting the heirloom tomato tasting and survey at the WNC Farmerís Market, retail vendors saw an increase in the numbers of heirlooms sold over new varieties. The one disadvantage retailers cited to the stocking of heirlooms is the increased perishability over conventional varieties.
Samplings at tailgate markets and Farmersí Markets can increase sales of heirloom varieties. The typical consumer is accustomed to purchasing produce based on uniformity in size, shape and color. Many heirloom varieties do not fall in this category. Presenting the potential buyer with a small sample prior to actually selecting the tomato may aid in altering such preconceived purchasing trends.
Additional market research was conducted in Asheville, N.C., area by conducting a white table cloth restaurant survey. Due to timing of the survey, the results were not complete. However, basic observations can be made as to the interest in locally grown heirloom tomato varieties. Chefs across the area were enthused to see something different in the market and were anxious to find sources of the heirloom varieties shown. A basket of three to four heirloom varieties was presented to each chef in over 20 white table cloth restaurants in the Asheville area.
Though some chefs were willing to pay more for locally grown heirloom tomatoes, others were hesitant to commit to paying more than they would for other locally grown varieties. The variation from one restaurant to another could be contributed to the individual chef, experience and clientele.
Growers should establish a personal relationship with individual restaurants/chefs to better assess the demand for individual varieties and the timing of production/harvest. The tomato/produce farmer should market not only himself but also his crop to the restaurant/buyer prior to planting, maintaining contact throughout the season through harvest. Growers can best determine numbers of varieties to plant, varieties most desired and optimum times of harvest if they maintain this close working relationship with restaurant owners, chefs and other retail outlets as applicable.
In conclusion, there is potential for marketing heirloom tomato varieties in and around Western North Carolina. There may even be potential for establishing working relationships with white table restaurants in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta. However, farmers should make the contact and market what they want to produce before the first transplant is set. Additional research on the varieties that would be best for a specific area or an individual restaurant would need to be conducted by NCSU, NCDA&CS and/or farmers to further complete this study.
Updated February, 2005