The tomato is a warm-season crop belonging to the nightshade family. Color patterns include red, white, purple, yellow, orange, mottled, or striped. Originating in South America, tomatoes were taken to Europe by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. Some believe the fruit might have been taken to Europe by Christopher Columbus himself as early as the fifteenth century. Regardless of who introduced it, the tomato soon made its way into France, Italy, and North Africa. Botanically speaking, the tomato is a fruit. In 1893, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it would be treated as a vegetable due to a tariff dispute. In the United States, the tomato is the second most produced “vegetable” after potatoes.
Tomatoes for processing are typically harvested by machine, while those for fresh consumption are picked by hand, both conventionally and in greenhouses. For more information about greenhouse-grown tomatoes, see our separate profile.
Although China grows the most tomatoes, the United States is second, with Florida and California leading domestic production. Together, Florida and California account for over two-thirds of the nation’s total acreage. Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee are the next largest tomato producers. Mexico comprises nearly three-quarters of the U.S. import market.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Florida Tomato Committee, USDA, Western Growers Association.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
Tomatoes can be classified several ways but usually fall into one of two types: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate varieties grow to a certain height and produce fruit for one cycle. Indeterminate varieties require staking/caging and grow throughout the season. Commercially, determinate varieties are more widely grown than indeterminate; the latter varieties are typically grown in home gardens.
Hundreds of varieties exist as either heirlooms or hybrids. Heirloom seeds can be saved for the next season and are often used for generations. Hybrid tomatoes are a combination of two varieties and because seeds may produce something different from parent fruit, they are generally not saved.
Tomatoes also have several different shapes: globe, cherry, beefsteak, and plum/pear/grape. For years, the most common tomato at grocery stores has been the globe—smooth, round, and medium in size—though other sizes and shapes have gained popularity. Cherry tomatoes, also smooth and round, range in size from one or two inches in diameter. Beefsteak tomatoes are large, wide, and somewhat flat-looking. Plum or Roma, as well as pear and grape varieties have smooth skin and are shaped as their names imply. Tomatoes as categorized by the USDA are greenhouse, fresh, cherry, or on-the-vine.
References: UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, USDA, Washington State University.