US: The legacy of Campbell Soup’s tomato breeding program

What comes to mind when you think of Campbell Soup? You might picture cans of tomato soup or perhaps an iconic Andy Warhol print of them. You probably don’t think much about the ingredients that went into those cans.

But Campbell’s did, and it bet big and early on agriculture research to grow its product offerings. One of the company’s biggest contributions to the agricultural space was its tomato breeding program, launched in 1910 in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, which involved conducting field experiments in an effort to breed different varieties for taste, production and disease resistance. A tomato research facility, added in 1937, was responsible for developing notable varieties such as the J.T.D., the Garden State and Rutgers tomato—and helped put New Jersey on the map as an important tomato-growing state.

Headquartered in Camden, New Jersey, Campbell’s once sourced most of its tomatoes from local farms. The Garden State has 24 different soil types, and most of them are good for farming. The prime growing area for Jersey tomatoes is a region now known as the Inner Coastal Plain, which covers more than 1,000 square miles in southern New Jersey, bordering the Delaware River to the west. The soil here consists of loams and sandy loam and is ideal for truck farms and high production of crops. Located within this prime growing area, Campbell’s was positioned well enough to double down on its bet that agricultural research would fuel its condensed soup products.  

Tomato production in New Jersey can be traced to 1812, when tomato grower John Loper farmed on land owned by Ephraim Buck in Cumberland County. Tomatoes at that time were still feared by some—a nickname for the fruit was “poisonous apple.” There’s a story about how Robert Johnson of Salem, New Jersey stood on the town’s courthouse steps and publicly ate a tomato to prove that it was safe; however, there’s no actual documentation it actually happened. (Don’t tell the residents of Salem though, who, in 2021, revived an annual tomato festival that at one time was named for Johnson and includes a reenactment of the local legend eating a tomato.)

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