Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: The Early Girl Tomato Saga

Photo above and on the front, iStock.

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food-related issues.

EVERY SEASON has some sort of weird tradition in our house. Around Thanksgiving, the most important celebration is Zee Toorki Sahnveesh Pahti, whose title evolved from a French pronunciation of the sandwich event. For January breakfasts, we eat slices of fruitcake left from the Christmas holidays and made from my mother-in-law’s recipe. When it cools down in the fall, I make fried chicken from the saved bacon grease from the summer’s deluge of BLT sandwiches.

The Resident Wine Maniac is a widely acknowledged maestro of BLT sandwiches. He has his own high standards. He allows a couple of white-bread styles—but they must be lightly toasted—and he much prefers Duke’s mayonnaise over other commercial brands. The purveyor of bacon is somewhat negotiable, although Binkert’s Bacon seems to be the current favorite. That could change. The lettuce must be butter lettuce, with a stand-in allowed if it’s local-farm-produced small romaine. But the never-to-be-substituted ingredient is the Early Girl tomato.

The Sacred Early Girl Tomato

Actually, the Early Girl tomato, revered throughout the US by knowledgeable growers and consumers alike, is a hybrid of a French tomato.  Andpraphic showing the difference between determinate and indeterminate growth since there seems to be a frenzy of  misunderstanding over the labels hybrid and heirloom, here are the differences. Neither heirlooms nor hybrids are genetically modified. An heirloom tomato is one that has a documented history spanning at least 40 years and is reproduced from seeds of the same parent plants. They are grown using open pollination (through bees or wind) rather than hand pollination. Hybrids such as Early Girl tomatoes are the result of cross-breeding two plants to achieve a particular result. You can’t save the seed and harvest the same type of tomato when it is a hybrid. You have to use hand-pollinated seeds to grow them, which means a new purchase of seeds every year. Both heirloom and hybrid varieties can be organically grown or not.

Early Girls’ advantages are numerous. They are early-ripening and keep producing until frost kills the plant—this is called indeterminate growth. (Determinate-growth plants stop growth and reproduction of fruits, vegetables or flowers at a certain time.)   Early Girl tomatoes can thrive beautifully without irrigation (although that was a byproduct of its original cultivation), called dry farming. Research showed that certain fruit and vegetable plants, somewhat like grapevines, could produce more-concentrated flavor if their roots had to struggle for a water source in the earth. Early Girl tomatoes survive in temperatures as low as 40F and produce well in hot dry climates. They are about the size and shape of a tennis ball, with a uniform bright red color and consistently good flavor, which has made them the best girlfriend for home gardeners.

An Early Girl Tomato Star Is Born

Early Girls and Lemon Boys with Salsa VerdeBeing in love with a hybrid, of course, means you have to buy the seed from the company that developed the plant. The original company that invested in the Early Girl tomato for the US market was PetoSeed. And the Early Girl itself was the dream of Joe Howland, a horticulturist and board member of the company. In the 1970s, PetoSeed specialized in tomato propagation and prided itself on developing hybrids of vegetables and fruits that were better producers for commercial growers, with less chemical intervention. Even though Howland was chairman of the PetoSeed board, other members voted down his request to develop this hybrid, their reason being that the tomato was not cost-effective for commercial growers and that the home gardener was not a significant part of the company’s market. Howland persisted and was rewarded later when Early Girl became a financial success for PetoSeed, primarily due to its popularity with home gardeners and small farms. So in 1975, an exclusive partnership was struck between PetoSeed and W. Atlas Burpee to sell this new hybrid to American gardeners. Howland christened his new baby Early Girl as a seed-marketing sibling to Burpee’s very successful Better Boy Tomato. The new tomato on the block was wildly popular.

Monsanto Rears Its Ugly Head

PetoSeed morphed into a larger seed-developing enterprise called Seminis (originally rooted in Mexico). Seminis and its brands were bought by Monsanto in 2005. As you probably know, Monsanto has locked up numerous patents on seeds, but the acquisition of Seminis allowed the latter’s horticulturists to have access to the biotechnology treasure chest of a much more powerful company. Now the fate of Early Girl is in the hands of Seminis, but that company itself is controlled by Monsanto, which sets the stage for the next chapter in the Early Girl’s life and the issue of untreated vs. treated seed.

While Monsanto itself does not own the patent on Early Girls, it does control the production of seed. Organic farms want untreated seeds. Treated seeds, which have been chemically enhanced for improved germination and larger crop yields with “conventional” farming methods, are viewed with disfavor by organic growers and some home gardeners alike. Untreated seeds are “clean” (read chemical free and non-GMO) and are not harmful to insects and in turn are probably not harmful to humans. The patent on the Early Girl has expired, which means Monsanto doesn’t have plant-variety protection, the agricultural version of copyright for the hybrid. So Early Girl tomatoes are in the public domain, but Monsanto through its ownership of Seminis,  controls the seed production. And since Early Girl is prized as an untreated hybrid , there are fears that its untreated seeds will one day be locked away in some Monsanto vault.

Waiting In the Wings: Dirty Girl for Early Girl Tomatoes

So what happens when you take seeds from a hybrid and try to grow them anyway?   Tara Duggan chronicled this experiment in the SFGate dirty girl tomatoes Dirty Girl Produce imagenews website. Joel Schirmer, a commercial organic farmer in Santa Cruz, is finding out. His farm, Dirty Girl Produce, is famous for its production of Early Girls. Since they are in the public domain, he has been growing new generations of Early Girl tomatoes from seeds he planted several years ago. The first year, the tiny crop had a few weird tomatoes, some born-to-die plants, some that did not produce anything . . . and a few that produced Early Girls naturally. This is how a gene pool is formed. Schirmer grew the next generations only from the successful plants, carefully keeping them separate from other tomato plants so there would be no cross-pollination. A few years ago, he had successfully grown a new crop of 1,000 Dirty Girl–producing plants, all Monsanto-free. You can now order the seeds online through Dirty Girl Produce. Currently, packets of 15 seeds are $6.

I cannot think of a better gift for the impossible-to-get-gifts-for person in our house. Now all he has to do is find someone to grow them for him.

2 thoughts on “Kitchen Detail: The Early Girl Tomato Saga

  1. Hello Nancy G,
    Thank you! I had just assumed before reading the history, that Early Girls were Monsanto prisoners, but so far there have been escapees.


  2. Nancy G says:

    Wow. What a fascinating column! Thanks!

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