Which Tomatoes for Farmers Market?

tampasteve(9)February 20, 2009

Hey folks, fairly new to the forums, and would like to ask you "pros" for some advice. I'm planning to start twenty or so 4'x8' raised beds in my large back yard, and plant tomatoes, peppers and herbs for the local farmers markets for extra money.

There is a shortage of actual farmers at the in-town markets, and I've gotten good response from the organizers when I mention bringing in locally-grown produce. My question for the old pros is,

"What types of tomatoes would you recommend for selling at farmers markets?"

I'm going to plant basil and cilantro as well as sweet and hot peppers in addition to tomatoes. I figure I'll need some big red slicing tomatoes, some cherry tomatoes, and something like a Roma for sauces. I also want to grow some tomatillos since we have a large Cuban and Hispanic population here.

Just by browsing the seed displays, I've picked out the following:

Jet Star Hybrid

Large Fruited Red Cherry

Cherokee Purple

I'm building the beds one at a time, and will plant them as I build them to stagger my harvest. I'll be building them with the long sides facing north, to maximize the space available for tomatoes. Any advice is welcome!

I *was* going to dry organic gardening, for the health benefits and better prices, but I can't get good information on what is different about the starting soil aside from "don't put chemical fertilizers in it", so am just going to buy bulk compost and fines, and mix in some topsoil.

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cleo88(6 / MA)

Hi TampaSteve,
I have no expertise (this is my first year starting from seed), except as a consumer. One thing that really stands out when trying to buy tomatoes are ones that are fluted - they look nothing like the awful things you get in the grocery store and therefore have a very heirloom look. The one in the link below (Marmande) I am going to attempt this year, but there are others that might work better in your zone, maybe Cuostralee.

Also as a consumer I think the bigger tomatoes (like Mortgage Lifter and many others) seem like they would taste better, although I know that is not always really the case. Totallytomato.com lists their types by size, which is unusual and might be helpful if you are looking for big ones.

For a website that lists by color (as most do), I just found mariseeds.com and I liked how it was organized, because it was easy to compare the DTM. I would think that you would want to balance you choice of plants for DTM so that you have a more even stream of tomatoes becoming ripe, not all at one time and then a "dry spell". Plus that website takes Paypal if that matters to you.

If it were me, I would stay away from green varieties - I think they would look unripe to many customers.

Good luck! We need more farmers markets!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 2:05PM
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anney(Georgia 8)


I'd go for look and taste, and to sell for the taste, I think I'd offer a small labeled paper plate for each variety with tomato chunks for people to taste with toothpicks or maybe plastic spoons that can be tossed into a nearby trash can.

I agree about having big red ones, fluted ones, certainly Sungold F2 cherries, maybe orange and yellow tomatoes. People are very big into heirlooms, so you might want to make sure they're prominently labeled in your array. I'd recommend some of the big hybrids, like Brandy Boy and Big Beef, nice pinks and reds. Cherokee Chocolate for a dark tomato that people would probably buy after tasting it!

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 3:23PM
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anney(Georgia 8)

Sungold F1 Cherries, not F2s!

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 3:25PM
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I thought F2 looked a little odd...

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 3:42PM
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rj_hythloday(8A VA)

I'm growing some for uniqueness and also supposed to be good taste. You might be interested in a green zebra, black from tula, Zapotec Pleated Slicing Tomato, Early Ssubakus Aliana, Green Pineapple , Manyel. Those are some of the more interesting ones that I'm going to be growing this year.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 4:12PM
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anney(Georgia 8)


It WAS odd!

I don't know why anybody would want to grow an F2 SunGold!

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 4:30PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

You'll find several discussions on this question over on the Market Garden forum and I have linked a couple of them below for more suggestions.

Different markets have different demands of course so I can only tell you what does and doesn't sell at our rural farmer's market. You market demands may be totally different so you'll have to do some scouting out of the competition. Since you are just now building your beds you have time to do some homework for next year sales. ;)

First, folks here want things they can't grow themselves. Since most buy their transplants they are growing all the common hybrid varieties so aren't interested in those. Unfortunately this includes 2 of the 3 packs of seed you bought. :( Cherokee Purple would sell here.

Second, they aren't interested in cherry varieties but do like plum and oxheart types. Some Sungold's sell but not much. Some home canners will buy lots of paste types but they don't limit themselves to just pastes. Majority want big slicing tomatoes and the large sweeter pinks are the most popular. Yellows and oranges sell well too but greens don't. Bi-colors sell well because they are "pretty" and different.

Unfortunately you likely won't be able to find seed for most of these locally, you'll have to order them from one of the better seed suppliers, of which there are several.

Tomatoes for market?

Medium tomatoes for market sales?

Marketing heirloom tomatoes?

Hope this helps.


    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 4:51PM
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cleo88(6 / MA)

As per Dave's comment about people not wanting to buy what they can grow: I wonder if you can find out if the people that would frequent a farmer's market in your area are veggie gardners or not. Some customers of farmers markets just want things that taste really good without them having to get their hands dirty. Around here I could see people who are making a dinner to impress wanting fancy looking (and good tasting) tomatoes for a salad, and having no problem spending a bunch for them.

I agree with the previous comments about tasting (but with toothpicks - no plastic spoons - bad for environment) and labeling - I think having an interesting name would make it more compelling to buy, especially for that dinner-to-impress - good dinner table conversation, as in, "The tomatoes in the salad are called Bloody Butcher!" OK, that might work better with Berkely Tye Die or Carmello. :)

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 5:45PM
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hmmm, well, while I can agree with some of the suggestions above, I have to point out some serious flaws too.

You are in a very disease prone area with yellow leaf curl, tomato spotted wilt, and tomato mottle virus endemic to the area plus nematodes are a serious problem anywhere in Florida. This means that to make money as a market gardener, you will probably want to consider growing some varieties that have disease tolerance. Big Beef, Amelia, Bolseno, and Security are some that you might investigate.

Heat tolerance is going to be another issue since at least some of your vines will be growing through the heat of the summer. I would plan on growing some mix of Druzba, Lyuda's Mom's Red Ukraine, Tropic, and Heidi since they also taste pretty good and can take some heat.

Flavor is a major concern so you want some tomatoes that have knock your socks off flavor. Strawberry Margarita, Earl's Faux, Stump of the World, and Brandywine could be grown IF you plant them very early.

You want some very early varieties to have tomatoes as soon as possible. Bloody Butcher and Gregori's Altai would be possibles in this class.

Last but not least, some different colored varieties can be marketed to some effect. Large fruited varieties such as JD's Special C-Tex, Black From Tula, KBX, Kellogg's Breakfast, Yoder's German Yellow, and Dr. Wyche would be near the top of my list. Cherry size tomatoes would include Camp Joy, Dr. Carolyn Pink, Black Cherry, Galina, and Riesentraube.

My last suggestion is to talk to someone who is in the plant business and go over the relative merits of the varieties you choose. Your success will depend on having good tasting tomatoes in quantity and knowing what to say to sell them. Having tomatoes that don't look like the round red sawdust tomatoes common in stores is a good point made above.


    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 6:11PM
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I had a lot of success with Red Fig Tomatoes last year. They were fantastically productive and people loved them because of their unique shape and good taste.

I also sold a lot of Sungold.

Try Opalka. Very prolific red paste tomato. If you are trying to maximize your income, grow ones that are very prolific.

I've also found an easy way to sell any tomato is to know what you are talking about. Be able to quickly give them the basics about each kind you sell. Anything out of the ordinary will make them stop at your table, the you have to comvince them to buy it.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 6:12PM
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Thanks guys! I guess I hadn't really thought about people coming to the market that were growing their own tomatoes at home, but I see that it makes sense. I think I'm going to have to grow the Mortgage Lifter just so I can tell the story! I'll stop doing my seed shopping at Lowes and Wal-Mart, I reckon. ;)

Two of the possible venues are urban markets. One is downtown on Fridays 10am-2pm)ends in May, takes back up in October. The other, which I haven't talked to yet, is year-round, 9am to 3pm (1pm in summer.) There is only one large produce stand at each, and they aren't farmers- they buy wholesale and resell.

The third one is actually run by an organic farm, and of course has a different clientele. Besides the farm itself, there is one other produce vendor, who is a backyard gardener doing intensive (permaculture) gardening.

I've read some in the Market Garden forum, where some say "grow something eye-catching and different to draw them in, but be prepared to sell mostly sandwich tomatoes." I just wanted to get some "specialist" advice as well, and you've given me some great advice indeed! (and I intend to dive into those links, Dave, thanks!)

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 6:41PM
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Steve, I second what Darrel said.
This is Florida, the tomato disease capitol of the world.
OK, well not exactly, the mid-east seems to be worse. LOL

If you are serious about actually having tomatoes to take to the market, here's my suggestion.

For early spring, plant fast det. plants with at least TSWV resistance, and stagger plant them a week apart the first month you plant.

I don't know if you guys had cold enough weather to knock down whiteflies, but just in case, I would also plant something like Margo, Sun King, Champion II that has TYLCV resistance as a backup.
Champion II is a good market tomato, I haven't grown out Margo and Sun King yet, but I'm putting them out this weekend.


    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 7:40PM
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horse_chick(Sunset 26)

Steve, I'm in Valrico and will be growing 12 varieties/24 plants this year including the types people might buy such as Black Russian, Super Marmande, San Marzano, Brandywine, Banana Cream, Vintage Wine among others. I've started over 175 seedlings. Most will be sold at the place where I work. (I'm an interiorscaper)

I was thinking about seeing if Collins Produce wanted to buy my excess fruits but would be interested in more info on the Farmers Market. Is that the one in Plant City?

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 11:12PM
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I would leave out the Roma tomatoes. They are always the cheapest tomatoes in the supermarket, and are rather tasteless although they normally are completely defect free.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2009 at 11:24PM
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I've got to agree with a lot that's been said but markets vary and that's important.

You may not sell much to those Cuban and Hispanics you mentioned. We don't sell much to our immigrant groups. And, the gardeners buy plants from us and don't usually come back for tomatoes.

Without droves of people coming thru a market, there's only so much specialization you can do. You'll want 50 or 60 customers every marketday. If your market has only 300 total coming thru, how are you going to "capture" every 5th person to walk in the gate with something really unusual? Won't happen - the farmers' market customer isn't that different from the supermarket customer. Somewhat, but unless you are going to be successful with a percent in the single digits - don't get too crazy with your offerings.

Quality makes for repeat customers and those folks are your bread and butter. I'm tempted to say, don't compromise flavor for looks but you better hit somewhere in between. Grade hard and if they are seconds, sell them at a reduced price. If they are below seconds, leave them at home.

Labor earns money at the market - sad but true. You may be able to pick a boat-load of beafsteaks in an hour but if your customers want to snack on something while they walk around - cherry tomatoes could bring in the most $$ at your stand. Don't go too small tho' - you'll work yourself to death harvesting a table full.

And make it a table full!!! The most ridiculous complaint I've heard from failing vendors is that they can't sell enuf - as they stand behind a few half-full baskets of nothin'. Some folks are just so afraid that they'll have to bring it back home at the end of the day that they won't risk bringing it in the first place.

Pile it high and kiss it good bye! Nothing excites customers as much as a bountiful display and a choice of colorful, top quality fruit.

Best of luck!


    Bookmark   February 21, 2009 at 12:12AM
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I buy tomatoes at a rather large farmer's market and there you need to work hard to stand out. First, have early tomatoes. If you have tomatoes before anyone else then I'll be sure to buy some and then I'll know where your stand is. Second, grow lots of nice big red tomatoes. Most people want something that is obviously a good tomato so looks are important. Third, grow a few odd colors and types. Those will get me to come over and look even when I have my own tomatoes at home. Fourth, grow organically if you can. A sign that says organic and locally grown does a lot around here. Fifth, if you get out-competed on the tomato market, try making your own salsas and pasta sauces. There was one stand last year that tried that and they got a lot of customers.

Oh, one last thing that works here - get a local restaurant to use some of your tomatoes. There is a place here that will say right on the menu where everything in the meal came from and they buy from the farmer's market. This might be a fairly unique to Madison situation though as I don't know a lot of places that do that.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2009 at 1:09AM
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Hi Horse Chick!

The market I talked to that is very interested in locally-grown and organic is the downtown Tampa market. They run October through May, 10am to 2pm in Lykes Square park in downtown Tampa, on Kennedy. I plan next weekend on checking out the Ybor City market, which is on Saturdays, year-round. I spent this Saturday driving out to Prosource One for the first time, only to find them closed for inventory!

Have you been to the Plant City market? I just assumed that it would have so many "real" farmers, that a backyard market gardener like myself would have no chance. I don't even know where it is.

Here is a link that might be useful: Tampa Downtown Market.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2009 at 12:50PM
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