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.