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Getting back that good old tomato flavor

SEGUIN, Texas -- When Larry Walker was growing up in Georgia, juicy great-tasting tomatoes fresh from the vine were one of life's simple yet expected pleasures.

SEGUIN, Texas -- When Larry Walker was growing up in Georgia, juicy great-tasting tomatoes fresh from the vine were one of life's simple yet expected pleasures.

But somewhere over the years, as Walker moved to San Francisco and then to

San Antonio, where he was publisher of the San Antonio Express-News for 15 years, the tomatoes of his youth disappeared. They were replaced by something that looked like a tomato, but certainly didn't taste like one.

"I went literally years without a decent tomato," he said.

No more.

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The self-described "tomato freak" has figured out that one of the best ways to get a good tomato is to grow your own. So, after he retired in 2006, he embarked on a new career as tomato farmer, ensuring that, for at least two seasons a year, he can enjoy the best tomatoes that can be grown. His is not a backyard garden with a few plants jutting up from ceramic pots.

Walker has bought two nurseries, one here and one in Marion, Texas. He challenged his associate, Steve Spalten, to raise tomatoes that would equal those of his memories.

"Larry asked me, 'Why can't you grow a tomato that tastes like a tomato?"' Spalten said. " 'I think I can,' I said."

To that end, he has planted 25 different heirloom varieties and 10 hybrids over a half acre at the Texas Plant Ranch here. Spalten, who earned a degree in floriculture in Hawaii and later earned a degree in landscape design from Texas

A&M University, created the soil blend, which includes a mixture of different sands and compost. The entire operation is organic, though it hasn't been certified as such.

He also selected the varieties of tomatoes planted. Though there are thousands of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, there's little information about growing them in South Texas. So, the plantings are very much an experiment in progress with Spalten recording just how well each variety does in the heat, hail, freak storms and wind that every farmer monitors, along with the birds and other wildlife that help themselves to ripening food.

This is the nursery's second crop, and it is an expansion over last fall's venture.

Walker and Spalten are discounting an attempt to grow tomatoes in a greenhouse, which produced, well, greenhouse tomatoes.

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"They tasted like cardboard," Walker said, spitting out the last word as if re-tasting one of the flavorless tomatoes all too prevalent in supermarkets and restaurants.

One problem with mass-produced greenhouse tomatoes, he explained, is that they're often picked while they're still green and then gassed to produce a red color. They have a longer shelf life, but they lack the sugars, or flavors, that develop when tomatoes are allowed to ripen on the vine.

"It's the one item (food suppliers) haven't been able to produce with any regularity," Walker said. "We just felt like it was a niche."

Walker knows there are many other tomato lovers out there, eager for organic tomatoes bursting with flavor, even if the prices are higher than those at the supermarket.

"The market is there," Walker said. "The people are willing to pay for it."

On a recent Saturday, almost 60 pounds of tomatoes were picked and sold at the two nurseries for $4 a pound. They were gone before the end of the day, and customers were clamoring for more, Spalten said.

As the season progresses, so will the supply, as many of the vines, especially the hybrids, are laden with ripening fruit.

Walker is also starting a Tomato Lovers Club, in which members in select ZIP codes would be able to receive orders of at least $20 delivered to their home.

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The tomatoes would be packed in cartons bearing the name Sweet Carolina Texas

Tomatoes, a tribute to Walker's wife, Caroline. (For details, visit www.schulznursery.com .)

Growing heirloom tomatoes is not an easy proposition.

The plants produce only 10 to 20 percent of the tomatoes that hybrid vines are capable of. That makes them more expensive. Plus, heirloom tomatoes are also "incredibly fragile," Spalten said, while picking a Plum Lemon from the vine. As if to prove his point, the skin on the ripe tomato split in his hand moments later.

"They're ugly, but they sure taste good," he said.

That ugliness only describes the blemishes you sometimes find on organic produce, which is bred for flavor, not eye appeal. There might be small knots or bug bites that have to be cut out before you eat the rest. Heirloom tomatoes are, in fact, anything but ugly. With their various shades of green, yellow, orange, black and, of course, red, they form an edible rainbow quite beautiful to behold.

That's one reason the nurseries are selling the heirlooms in medleys, so each customer gets to enjoy their visual splendor while tasting the differences among varieties.

The flavor is as good as Spalten promised. To demonstrate, he carried a carving board and a serrated knife into the vineyard to sample some of the crop. He sliced up a series of reds, including a Brandywine, a San Marzano and a Geronimo, an apt choice given its proximity to nearby Geronimo Creek.

The Green Zebra, with green stripes and a light touch of yellow, had perhaps the highest acidity level, while the fleshier Black Krim, with red bleeding into black, was almost salty.

Noting the differences in flavor, some subtle, others not, requires the same sensory associations that people use with wine. The comparison is not lost on Walker, who is also a wine aficionado.

The heirloom tomato business today "is where we were with wine 40 years ago," he said.

Though the spring tomato season is only beginning, Walker and Spalten are talking about expanding their lot, at Schulz Nursery and beyond. "If we can make this work, we hope to replicate it," Walker said. "I'd like to have 10 more of these."

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