What comes to your mind when you think of Campbell Soup? You could imagine cans of tomato soup or maybe an iconic Andy Warhol print. You probably don’t think much about the ingredients that go into these boxes.
But Campbell did, and he bet big and early on agricultural research to expand his product offering. One of the company’s greatest contributions to the agricultural space was its tomato breeding program, started in 1910 in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, which involved conducting field experiments with the goal of breeding different varieties. for taste, production and resistance to disease. A Tomato Research Center, added in 1937, was responsible for the development of notable varieties such as JTD, Garden State Tomato, and Rutgers Tomato and helped put New Jersey on the map as a producing state of tomatoes important.
Based in Camden, New Jersey, Campbell’s used to source most of its tomatoes from local farms. The Garden State has 24 different types of soil, and most of them are good for farming. Jersey’s main tomato-growing area is an area now known as the Interior Coastal Plain, which covers over 1,000 square miles in southern New Jersey, bordering the Delaware River to the west. The soil here consists of loam and sandy loam and is ideal for vegetable farms and high crop production. Located in this prime growing area, Campbell’s was well enough positioned to double down on its bet that agricultural research would fuel its condensed soups.
Tomato production in New Jersey dates back to 1812, when tomato grower John Loper farmed land owned by Ephraim Buck in Cumberland County. Tomatoes at this time were still dreaded by some – a nickname for the fruit was “poisonous apple. “There is a story of how Robert Johnson of Salem, New Jersey stood on the steps of the city courthouse and publicly ate a tomato to prove it was safe; however , there is no actual documentation of what really happened. (Don’t tell the locals of Salem, who in 2021 revived an annual tomato festival that once went by Johnson’s name and includes a recreation of the local legend eating a tomato.)
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As the 1800s moved on and people overcame their fear of tomatoes, tasty berries began to become a cash crop. The canning industry was developing in New Jersey, with tomatoes being part of the canned crop mix. In the 1860s, the rapid commercialization of tomato ketchup as a consumer product propelled tomato cultivation, particularly in southern Jersey, a ketchup-producing area. The Campbell Soup Company was originally founded as the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company in 1869. In the 1870s, the company began marketing its new Beefsteak Tomato Ketchup.
By 1910, when the company launched its tomato breeding program, Campbell’s had changed its name and launched its famous Beefsteak Tomato Soup Ready to Eat. The following year the company reached national distribution and needed more tomatoes to meet demand.
One of the tomatoes selected by Campbell’s was the Rutgers tomato, whose lineage dates back to the man who invented the condensed soup process, John Thompson Dorrance, when he was an employee of Campbell’s. He would later become president of the company. The JTD tomato, which bears his name, was released in 1918 and was probably bred on the farm where Dorrance lived. The JTD tomato is a medium sized red tomato that averages eight to 12 ounces. It is uniform in shape, tasty and does not crack. Campbell’s sought to standardize its crop with tomatoes of consistent size and shape, without taste or blemish, as its production needs increased.
The JTD tomato, although important in New Jersey, was even recognized nationally. In the USDA Yearbook of Agriculture of 1937, it has been described as “an interesting example of a local type developed for adaptation to a specific set of conditions and needs. It was developed by Campbell Soup Co. for cultivation in New Jersey, primarily for its own factory use. It has not become very widespread elsewhere. This work greatly contributes to the iconic status of the Jersey tomato.
In 1928, the JTD tomato was used in a breeding program for what has become the most popular Jersey heirloom tomato, the Rutgers. To create it, JTD was crossed with Marglobe, a disease-resistant and historic tomato developed by Frederick John Pritchard while working at the Plant Industry Bureau of the USDA. Marglobe has high resistance to Fusarium wilt and spike rust diseases, which have plagued tomato growers in Florida. Once the Marglobe was introduced, it almost saved the Florida tomato industry.
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After Campbell’s crossed the Rutgers tomato, the company handed it over to Professor Lyman Schermerhorn of the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES). Schermerhorn did field trials for the next six years, making selections of the best plants. The Rutgers tomato was launched in 1934 and it quickly proved itself as a processing and adaptability tomato.
As Andrew Smith details in his book Tomato Soup, 72 percent of commercial growers in the United States have already planted the Rutgers tomato. It is an important part of the market. It was used by Hunt’s and Heinz, as well as the Jersey-based PJ Ritter Company, a nationwide tomato seed and food processing company in the 1950s.
But soon after the introduction of the Rutgers tomato, tomato growing practices began to change. As the harvest became more mechanized, the thin-skinned Rutgers tomato fell in popularity with farmers, who were looking for thicker tomatoes that would last longer. When this happened, the Rutgers tomato fell out of favor as a canned tomato.
“The importance of the original Rutgers in modern tomato history was largely lost during the 1950s and 1960s when the industry shifted to F1 hybrid cultivars and mechanical harvesting of processing types. currently used in prepared soups and sauces, ”says Tom Orton. , a professor in the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers University who retired last year. “The original Rutgers developer Lyman Schermerhorn also retired in the 1950s and most of the genetic material he developed during his career, including the Rutgers breeding lines, has been lost.”
In 2010, Orton and a team of researchers began work on the Jersey Tomato Project with the goal of reviving the Rutgers strain, believed to be lost in history. However, they soon learned that Campbell’s still had stocks of the original seed used to develop the original Rutgers variety, stored in a safe. In 2016, researchers were able to launch a regenerated version: the Rutgers 250, which coincided with the 250th anniversary of Rutgers University.
It’s great that Campbell’s kept the original seeds so this historic tomato can be reintroduced. Other tomato seeds were also discovered, which Rutgers researchers also cultivated. One of these was KC-146, which NJAES ‘Cindy Rovins said was developed by Campbell’s for the production of tomato juice and later used as a flavor standard as it continued to develop new varieties. .
Another Campbell’s tomato, the Garden State, was introduced by Campbell’s in 1947. In the Campbell’s naming convention, it is also known as Campbell’s 37 or KC-37. From Pink Topper, Marvel and Pritchard, the seeds are not easy to find, although they were donated to the USDA Germaplasm Bank in 1960.
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It’s ironic that seeds from a tomato named after the nickname of a state known for its Jersey tomatoes, which was part of a historic breeding program, are not more widely available. Campbell’s was in the food production business, not the seed business, so the seeds were not distributed to commercial seed companies. As the USDA noted in its review of the JTD, Campbell tomatoes were primarily intended for their plant use, not gardeners or tomato hobbyists.
The Garden State tomato, like many other varieties that Campbell’s was responsible for developing, is a tasteful tomato. It’s no wonder that Campbell’s Tomato Soup took its historic place in American culture, cementing itself even more when Andy Warhol painted his iconic Campbell’s Soup Can series which debuted in 1962.
Warhol once said of Campbell’s soup, “I drank it. I used to have the same lunch every day, for 20 years I guess, the same thing over and over again. In the two decades he drank his lunch, Warhol tasted iconic Jersey tomatoes like everyone else. Unbeknownst to one of them, they were consuming the fruits of a historic and innovative tomato breeding program.
Jeff Quattrone is the founder of Seed bank library, an artist and seed activist who works to preserve local food biodiversity through seed libraries.