Keith Mueller's red-and-gold truck bounces down the blacktop, past ranch houses and Cape Cods. He's bound for a 150-foot-by-25-foot plot of land at Kurlbaum Tomatoes in Kansas City, Kansas. After he parks in the shadow of a shed, it's another 1,000 yards on foot down a steep slope before he can stand among the three throws of plants that he says hold the secret to discovering the best tomato you've ever tasted.
"When you go out into the field and pick a tomato at its ultimate ripeness and see just how good it can be, that's when you have that aha moment," Mueller says. "That's when you get it."
He's part of a new wave of tomato breeders who argue that modern agriculture has been focused on the wrong traits by seeking to create tomatoes that travel well and look beautiful but with little regard for how the fruit tastes. This undelivered promise is addressed in author Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
"Winter supermarket tomatoes are pornography," Estabrook tells The Pitch by phone from his Vermont home. "They look good. They excite you. But they don't come through."
His book condemns the industrialized growing system that dominates tomato production in Florida, which in turn sets the tone for the rest of the country. Florida Tomato Committee manager Reggie Brown told CNN earlier this month that the state accounts for as much as 45 percent of the domestic fresh tomato market in the winter season.
"With industrial breeders, there has been no incentive to breed for flavor," Estabrook says. "You don't get paid by taste."
Jay Scott, one of the horticulturists profiled in Tomatoland, hopes that a fresh, distinctive taste can convince consumers to pay more for a sweeter, rounder, redder tomato. His Tasti-Lee tomatoes, the result of a decade of research at the University of Florida, arrived in supermarkets this summer. Mueller has met Scott. He hopes that Tasti-Lee succeeds, but he admits that he's searching for a more complex flavor.
"Sweetness isn't the only thing," Mueller says. "I could have a bland tomato and put sugar on top and still have a sweet tomato. I want to change people's perceptions."
For him, that starts with a black tomato — a black cherry, to be exact. The Purple Haze tomato is purple-pink (Mueller believes pigmentation is linked to flavor), the result of crossbreeding Brandywine, Black Cherry and Cherokee Purple plants. The fruit is a bit bigger than a Super Ball, and its flavor is a fine, rounded sweetness. In his mind, the color palette at farmers markets is where the next big shift will occur, just as bumpy, irregular heirloom tomatoes are now seen as desirable by many shoppers.
Unexpected discoveries have always driven Mueller. When he was 8 years old, he was a self-declared "tomato hater." But a ripe, red slice of tomato atop a hamburger from the Kingdom City truck stop along Interstate 70 changed his life.
"I was like, 'This is amazing. Why is it so good?' And my dad told me it was probably because it was just picked," Mueller recalls.
He learned the art of gardening from his two grandfathers, who kept large plots — a holdover from the lean times of the Depression. After graduating from Shawnee Mission East High School, he learned about the business side of produce, selling to small grocery stores while working at Gregg Lime in the City Market. He got serious about breeding while at Kansas State University.
"My professors told me that I could see things that others couldn't see," Mueller says.
While he worked with Crenshaw melons during his time in Manhattan, Kansas, it was the tomato plant that lured him to North Carolina State for graduate work in 1993. Under adviser Randy Gardner, Mueller began to research vine-ripened tomatoes (as opposed to the tomatoes picked green that ripen in transit to the supermarket). He worked with growers, moving inland from the beach to a cabin in Asheville, North Carolina, in order to develop breeding lines that could fight early blight and still be tasty.
"It's the equivalent of certain overly popular dog breeds or Middle Ages royal families," Estabrook says. "Tomatoes can be genetically weak and vulnerable to all sorts of diseases."
Gardner and Mueller's research involved crossbreeding, wherein two different strains of tomatoes are married in an attempt to create a new line with desirable characteristics. The parents (the two breeding plants) are selected, and the seeds of the hybrid plant produce a new tomato. The seeds can then be tested over several generations and in different conditions. It's a scientific approach to the same strategies used by the generation of truck farmers that included Mueller's grandfathers.
"I don't have a problem with genetic modification," Mueller says. "I just don't believe that people actually know what they're doing."
He moved back to Overland Park in 1998 and began experimenting with pigmentation genes and disease resistance. He ordered seeds from the Tomato Genetics Resource Center at the University of California–Davis, and the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center in Taiwan.
"Nobody's touched these things from the 1950s," he says. "But I can hopefully build off their work, and even if I won't see the end result, somebody else will." He started with a small plot at Bear Creek Farms in Osceola, Missouri, nine years ago. But $60 tanks of gas in his truck added up, particularly because he hadn't yet begun to sell seeds online.
Then he had a fortuitous meeting at a tree nursery. Sky Kurlbaum, who owns Kurlbaum Tomatoes with his wife, Liz, remembers Mueller sitting in the back of the room and gently correcting his mistakes.
"I was giving a talk on tomatoes, and he caught me when I made up a word," Kurlbaum says. "Afterward, I went up and introduced myself to find out more about this smart guy."
On a handshake three years ago, Kurlbaum agreed to let Mueller have a small piece of land to try out different crossbreeds. "It's good to have a guy like that on our farm," Kurlbaum says. "He helps us understand exactly what's going on in the field."
On a sunny September day, Mueller looks out on that field from the other side of a creek lined by persimmon trees. He squats between a row of tomato plants and digs through leaves that have begun to droop. The growing season is over for the tomato breeder, but he's back to collect a final bit of data. Mueller cuts into a cherry tomato with a pen knife, his fingers pointing out the coloration of the gel and flesh of the marble-sized fruit.
Every few feet is a ribbon of pink plastic — a color-coded reminder of which plants he means to study further. He has spent hundreds of hours out on the farm since May 15, the start of his growing season, dictating notes about color and growth patterns into his iPhone. He looks for when each plant ripens, hoping one will yield the same aha moment that he experienced as an 8-year-old at a diner.
"I think there is a market shift," Estabrook says. "Growers are slowly beginning to realize the obvious: that people will pay for flavor."
Mueller is hoping to speed that shift by releasing unpatented lines of tomatoes such as the Gary O'Sena (a pink-purple fruit) and the Dora (a pink-red fruit with a green top), both of which he created by crossbreeding Brandywine and Cherokee Purple.
"I give up direct control, but then people see that I have good stuff," he explains. It's the equivalent of a supermarket handing out free samples. In time, he expects to begin trademarking plants like Scott's Tasti-Lee and working directly with growers to promote them. Tomatoes are the new superheroes of the produce market, and customers are clamoring for an origin story. Mueller sees that story waiting in every seed bank.
"We have all of these different pigments and unique traits sitting on a shelf from the past 70 years," he says. "I say, let's do something with those seeds. They're not just for tomato nerds. We can find some great new flavor."