By Suzi Parker
LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - A cake with heirloom tomato icing? Don't laugh.
The dessert with a hint of zing was the highlight of an all-tomato feast on Friday in Monticello in southeastern Arkansas to promote heirloom tomatoes.
Guests enjoyed a buffet dinner of stuffed tomatoes, tomato flatbread, five-tomato salad, basil chicken and several tomato-based sides topped off with tomato cake.
The all-tomato dinner grew out of consumer yearning for home-grown tomatoes rather than the hard, grainy and tasteless offerings at many grocery stores, organizers said.
"There is an argument for heirlooms in that they are better tasting than commercial varieties that you find in a grocery store," said Dr. Bob Stark, professor of agricultural economics at the Southeast Research and Extension Center in Monticello.
"People who have grown up eating home-grown tomatoes are finding that they want them again and may pay a premium price for them," he said.
Heirloom tomatoes are varieties handed down through generations, perhaps with the seeds passed within families.
For southern Arkansas farmers, heirloom tomatoes like the Cherokee purple and the original Arkansas Traveler could become a valuable cash crop.
Stark and Paul Francis, a professor of plant and soil science, have been working for two years, in part with funding from the Arkansas Agriculture Department, to research heirloom tomatoes' economic viability.
In recent years, heirloom tomatoes, any open-pollinated traditional variety that is at least 50 years old or older, have become more popular. But unlike tomatoes grown in mass hot houses, an heirloom tomato is less disease resistant, bruises more easily and has a shorter shelf life.
The seeds from heirlooms can be saved and planted the next year. In contrast, commercial tomatoes are hybrids grown for conformity, and growers have to buy seeds each year adding to production costs.
Arkansas is a natural place to test these tomatoes, as the tomato is the official state fruit and vegetable.
Since 1956, Warren, Arkansas in Bradley County has hosted the annual Pink Tomato Festival each June. Former President Bill Clinton has often praised Arkansas tomatoes and attended the festival numerous times as governor.
"To some extent, the heritage of the people who originally settled southeast Arkansas brought tomatoes with them," Stark said. "In south Arkansas, the weather was a little bit warmer and that contributed to the growth of the industry."
The state was once a major tomato producer. In 1989, southeast Arkansas producers shipped 11,820 tons of fruit. By 2005, the total was down to 4,285 tons. In 2009, half of all tomato crops faced disaster after rain put a dent in pollination and early heat contributed to cracked and misshapen fruits.
John Gavin, Bradley County staff chair for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said heirloom crops cannot not be raised in mass amounts because of the labor associated with pruning and picking.
"You will pay for the delicacy of it," said Gavin. "But people are willing to do it as we are beginning to see."
Stark and Francis have given seeds and plants to area growers to test endurance and blight resistance.
At Friday night's dinner, guests left with seeds, tomatoes and recipes.
"The interest is definitely there, thanks to Food Network (television) chefs talking about heirlooms, but we will continue to fuel interest in these tomatoes especially to growers despite some disease risk," said Stark.
(Editing by Greg McCune and Ellen Wulfhorst)