In 2015 A.P. Whaley Seed Company and Frogsleap Farm started a joint project on tomatoes. Most of large fresh market tomato breeding programs have primarily focused on three things: high fruit yield, shipping-friendly fruit, and disease resistance. Consumers are demanding better flavor, and the larger companies are struggling to meet this new market demand. On the other hand there are several small breeding programs with some excellent heirloom-derived O.P. varieties, but generally without broad spectrum disease resistance and new technology that enables extended shelf life. We sensed an opportunity to combine modern breeding tools with a strong customer related focus on great tasting tomatoes.
Our strategy has been Flavor First. The breeding program was started about a decade ago by making crosses between our favorite heirloom types (e.g. Cherokee Purple, Brandywine and Kellogs Breakfast) and some of the best tasting striped varieties (e.g. Berkeley Tie Dye, Black Zebra, and Pink Boar). Sungold, everybody's favorite hybrid cherry, was added to the crossing mix. During several generations of selection in various breeding nurseries, new lines from these crosses were selected for outstanding flavor, improved plant health, earliness, good fruit yield and high fruit quality.
A few years later the best F4/F5 lines were crossed to a few commercial hybrids with outstanding disease resistance, excellent fruit quality and/or extended shelf life. Marker assisted selection (MAS) was then employed to effectively concentrate the resistance alleles in segregating progeny – combined with tasting and selection each generation to keep flavor in the forefront.
|An example of disease resistant and FLF high flavor parents|
The backbone of the breeding program has always been our large breeding nurseries in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, within which there has been rigorous selection for plant health (biotic and abiotic stress tolerance), fruit quality (tolerance to cracking/splitting and fruit texture), fruit yield and fruit flavor. By design - tough selection environments, and tough parent lines with extraordinary flavor.
|Pennsylvania breeding nursery|
|North Carolina breeding nursery|
|2017 Trials and Nursery at Whaley Farm in Mt Horeb, WI|
We have multiple target markets: home gardeners, small/medium sized open field commercial producers targeting value-added markets, and small to large scale high tunnel/greenhouse producers. We will strive to develop products ideally adapted for each of these markets. Our breeding program includes tomatoes of all sizes and shapes and in every imaginable color, many with gold or green stripes.
Most of the products released by Cream of the Crop Tomatoes will be F1 hybrids. We have identified parent lines with general and specific combining ability for both fruit yield and flavor. The increase in fruit yield for F1s was expected, the magnitude of heterosis for flavor was a pleasant surprise. A hybrid scheme also greatly facilitates stacking of multiple disease resistance traits and is a requirement in deploying some of the extended shelf life alleles for genes controlling fruit ripening.
To achieve our commercial goals we have invested in a state of the art breeding program, with an experienced breeding team using traditional and marker assisted breeding, coupled with year round greenhouse capabilities to enable multiple generations per year. We are also expanding collaborations to increase our ability to test new products in various open field and protected culture production systems.
|Collecting tissue samples for marker-assisted genotyping|