I want to take you for a moment to The University of Florida Gulf Coast Research & Education Center (GCREC) where I recently had the chance to sit down with the Center’s director, Dr. Jack Rechcigl. He shared some pretty cool stories about what’s happening there.
WAIT! Before you read RESEARCH and EDUCATION and hit the delete button, you need to stick around. I promise this is a FUN story that does not involve chemistry or homework or dull statistics.
In fact, this is an amazing story you may have had no idea was happening in our back yard.
Brief Background of GCREC: In 2012 The University of Florida Gulf Coast Research & Education Center relocated from Bradenton to 475 acres of donated land in Wimauma. There’s a whole tale behind that relocation, but for now I’ll keep it brief.
GCREC’s focus is to “develop and share new science-based information and technology that will help Florida’s agricultural industry compete in the global marketplace.”
What?!? In essence, a huge team of international scientists, professors, researchers, grad students and super smart people work on all sorts of projects from plant breeding to safer ways to control agricultural diseases, all which help Florida’s agriculture. It’s a very good thing. They’re even working on growing hops for our local micro-breweries. (Totally cool, I know, but that’s yet another article).
Stay with me… getting to the fun stuff.
While there’s several more stories coming about this truly incredible research facility (what they’re doing right here in Wimauma will seriously blow your mind) I thought it would be fun to bring you a story about something we’re is enjoying right now.
The Tasti-Lee Tomato: Years in the Making
It’s not often one stops and thinks about their tomatoes, but if you’ve had the chance to taste a Tasti-Lee tomato you’ve at least likely stopped to think, “Now, that’s a yummy tomato.” Tasti-Lee’s taste homegrown.
As it turns out, ‘breeding’ a new, and delectable, tomato variety is complex, but it was done. In Wimauma. At GCREC. Right there under our noses and we didn’t know it.
Here’s the story of the Tasti-Lee Tomato…
Jay Scott, a now retired horticulture professor and tomato breeder at GCREC, decided it was time for a better tasting tomato and one whose skin stayed strong and didn’t turn to mush. Florida tomatoes had developed a reputation for being tasteless. He knew it didn’t have to be that way.
So, Scott set out to develop a yummier tomato with the support of his GCREC colleagues.
Let’s bust a myth here right off the bat. Before you start thinking ‘genetically modified’ monster tomatoes the Tasti-Lee tomato is NOT. It’s 100% natural. It was created the old fashioned way, with a momma and a poppa.
Overall, it took Scott 10 years to develop the new tomato.
It took Scott more than 5 years to find the ‘parent’ varieties to breed the Tasti-Lee. He had to find the exact right combination of parents to get the right flavor, color, skin strength, shape (yes, tomatoes have to be a certain shape to be grown commercially) and more.
Then two years to test the resulting seeds and another three years to get enough growers to grow the Tasti-Lee commercially.
According to Dr. Rechcigl, “During the development, we had thousands of plants growing. We were constantly evaluating and crossing them. We’d also have 200+ ‘tasters’ tasting each plant for flavor, acidity and other aspects. It’s a bit arbitrary in the process but it worked. It just takes a lot of patience.”
Shwew! That’s a lot of work for a tomato, but our hamburgers are sure thankful.
The Tasti-Lee Is Vine Ripened
The coolest thing about the Tasti-Lee (besides its taste), and one that had growers hesitating at first (but dancing later), is the Tasti-Lee ripens on the vine.
What’s that? They all ripen on the vine, right? Uh, no. Most commercially grown tomatoes are picked green (while their still hard and can withstand shipping) and then ‘gassed’ to ripen them. Ick. No wonder they taste like nothing…that’s been gassed…
The Tasti-Lee is tough enough to hold up to shipping, after it ripens, so it gets to stay on the vine and get juicy and delicious.
It’s also higher in Lycopene and other anti-oxidants. Delicious and good for you – double bonus.
This new variety had commercial growers dancing because vine-ripening gave them access to a new market, too. The grocery story. See, consumers were demanding better tasting tomatoes. The Tasti-Lee was just the ticket.
Most Florida growers previously sold their tomato crops to be used in salsas and other products. Now, they had a tomato they could sell directly to eager customers and land directly in our caprese salads via our grocery shopping cart.
The Tasti-Lee is so cool the The Washington Post even wrote about it!
So, the next time your slicing up Tasti-Lee’s for your barbecue remember this scrumptious little beauty comes from our very own Wimauma.
Today, Tasti-Lee tomatoes are sold across SouthShore (chuckle), the United States and Canada.
PS: About the mother-in-law clue. Jay Scott named the Tasti-Lee for his mother-in-law, Lee, who encouraged him to make a better tomato. Sadly, she passed away before she got to taste the tomato named for her.
COMMENT BELOW: What’s your favorite way to eat a Tasti-Lee? Me? On a juicy hamburger with mustard and mayo, juices dripping down my arm, coupled with a nice cold beer. Yum.