The New Franklin center, opened in 1953, used to be the home of MU tomato research. Researchers developed varieties of tomatoes specifically suited to Missouri's climate, including the Show-Me tomato.

The University of Missouri’s Tomato Day returns Thursday to New Franklin, once the home of the university’s tomato research.

Tomato Day will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday evening in the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri in New Franklin. Visitors will be able to taste 50 different tomato varieties grown at the center, including 10 new trial varieties from the Harris Seed Company.

MU held a Tomato Festival at the Bradford Research Farm in Columbia each summer for the past 12 years. The New Franklin farm hosted Tomato Day before the festival started in Columbia, Eschenbrenner said. This year, the tomatoes are back in New Franklin.

A presentation on the history of tomato research at the University of Missouri will be given by Associate Professor of Horticulture David Trinklein. A salsa making and canning demonstration will be led by Elizabeth Harrison, Howard County Extension Specialist. A melon tasting will be hosted by James Quinn, field horticulture specialist.

Barry Eschenbrenner, farm manager at the center, said they’ve been growing 170 tomato plants to prepare for Tomato Day. They’ll be picking tomatoes on Wednesday and Thursday in preparation for visitors Thursday evening, he said.

They’ll cut the tomatoes into small pieces so visitors can taste each variety. Visitors can fill out a grading sheet to show which tomatoes they preferred, then head down to the growing patch to see the different plants, Eschenbrenner said.

The New Franklin center, opened in 1953, used to be the home of MU tomato research. Researchers developed varieties of tomatoes specifically suited to Missouri’s climate, including the Show-Me tomato, Eschenbrenner said.

“It was developed so it would produce in our summer and soil,” he said.

Trinklein worked at the farm in the 1970s when it was the Horticultural Research Farm. He assisted the research of DrProfessor. Vic Lambeth, who put MU’s tomato breeding program on the map, Trinklein said.

Lambeth developed many varieties of tomatoes, including the Show-Me. Many of his varieties were popular locally and around the state but weren’t marketed nationally. Those breeds have been lost over time, Trinklein said.

Hybrid tomatoes like Lambeth developed have to be reconstituted every generation. A gardener couldn’t just use the seed of a hybrid plant, the seed company would have to cross pollinate the parents again to create a new generation of hybrid plants, said Trinklein.

Lambeth didn’t breed tomatoes to be commercially successful. One variety, the Pink Gourmet, was bred for taste and had a small, loyal following. Because it was pink instead of the typical red — and it was soft, thin-skinned and didn’t ship well — it never became an established, commercial variety, Trinklein said.

Seed companies keep varieties alive, and they keep the varieties that sell. Because none of Lambeth’s varieties was a commercial success, seed companies didn’t keep stocks of the parent strains, Trinklein said. He doesn’t know where someone could find viable parent seeds for those varieties today, he said.

The New Franklin center’s research is now focused on agroforestry, Eschenbrenner said. One focus of the center is silvopasture, combining trees and pasture into a grazing system for cattle. They also do research on tree nuts, apples, peaches and grapes, he said. An MU researcher recently started a study into the effect spraying the herbicide dicamba has on peach trees over several years.

The tomatoes grown for Tomato Day aren’t part of research. The goal is to bring people down to the center, both to learn about tomatoes and to see the other work going on there, Eschenbrenner said.

bcrowley@gatehousemissouri.com