Greenhouse tomatoes are more than just beefsteaks and tomatoes on the vine. Although the staples have seen a surge, thanks to crop shortages, growers say specialty tomatoes are also on the rise.

“Now we are starting to see more demand for specialties, especially this past wintertime,” said Aaron Quon, greenhouse category director for The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, which grows cocktail, grape, roma, strawberry, yellow and orange tomatoes. “Consumers really want a flavorful tomato, and the ring is higher than (tomatoes on the vine) or beefsteak.”

Quon said in-store demos help reach niche customers to demonstrate the value of sweeter taste, higher shelf life and pre-packaging. He also noted tomatoes with higher brix levels are used for snacking and salads.

Quon also said the Oppenheimer Group is in its third season of growing strawberry tomatoes, which have high brix level. The company markets strawberry tomatoes in 9-ounce on-the-vine packs and 10-ounce loose packs.

Oppenheimer is already picking strawberry tomatoes in British Columbia, and will be picking other varieties throughout March according to Quon.

Bryant Ambelang, vice president of sales and marketing for Desert Glory Ltd., San Antonio, said while much of his competition focuses on larger tomatoes, Desert Glory has a 70% share in cherry tomatoes and 50% to 60% share in grape tomatoes west of the Mississippi.

The grape tomatoes, which the company markets as Cherubs, meet consumer desire for consistent flavor and color, he explained.

“Small tomatoes are taking a larger and larger share of large tomatoes for the simple reason that they taste better,” he said. “We are working on larger tomatoes but are not going to launch a larger tomato unless it tastes great.”

Ambelang indicated Desert Glory is devoting significant resources to developing larger tomato varieties with “very high flavor and quality” characteristics.

Tim Cunniff, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Backyard Farms LLC, Madison, Maine, also is giving smaller tomatoes a try with an initial three acres of cocktails this season.

“It’s just a trial, but we’re starting,” he said.

Chris Veillon, executive vice president of Mastronardi Produce Ltd., Kingsville, Ontario, praised the quality of fruit this year, noting its Mexican-grown varieties.

“It’s been a good winter season for us,” he said.

Corey Robertson, marketing and public relations manager for Nature Fresh Farms, Leamington, Ontario, was optimistic about the demand for tomatoes on the vine this year.

“The one thing that excites us very much is research we’ve seen that consumer demand for cluster tomatoes is up compared to the year before,” he said. “We certainly look to that as an indicator for successfully selling our product to market.”

Robertson said Nature Fresh plans to begin harvesting its 32 acres on April 5.

Salmonella scare effects

Several Mexican greenhouse tomato suppliers said fewer tomatoes were planted this year as growers shifted crops after the salmonella scare in the summer of 2008.

“A lot less field tomatoes were planted in Mexico because of the salmonella scare blamed on Mexican tomatoes,” said Gregg Biada, vice president of Global Fresh Import & Export, Springfield, Ill.

Biada estimated some 35% fewer plantings, which added to the winter shortage prompted by Florida’s freeze.

“They planted other items, like cucumbers and peppers,” he said. “They did it because people walked away from the Mexican tomatoes.”

Biada said Global Fresh’s largest item has been tomatoes on the vine, which he said appear to be gaining prominence at the retail level.

Doug Kling, chief sales and marketing officer for Village Farms, Eatontown, N.J., attributed the drop in tomato consumption this year to more than the scare.

“It’s a combination of the economy and some of the salmonella scare still impacting purchases,” he said. “Demand is stable, and there is the same amount or more product.”

Kling said Village Farms’ share of tomato sales in Texas has been growing, reaching every major chain store. In addition to Texas, the company also grows greenhouse tomatoes in Pennsylvania, New York and British Columbia.

Quon said the shortage brought on by the Florida freeze nullified any lingering effects of the salmonella scare.

“The freeze out of Florida has created a little more demand for tomatoes in general, whether they are produced in the U.S. or in Mexico,” he said. “I think it had some short-term effects when it happened, but not long-term effects.”