The Tomato Project aims to discover ideal tomato fertility methods

Farm Forum

PLATO, Minn. — “What is a nutrient-dense tomato?” is the surprising question that International Ag Labs and Fix My Soil are working together to answer in their joint venture, “The Tomato Project” ( Because no nutrient density standard exists for fruits and vegetables, consumers are unwittingly in the dark about arguably the most important variable affecting quality. The project is currently testing a variety of fertility methods to determine how to maximize the taste, nutrition and yield of tomatoes.

“The Tomato Project is a great example of citizen science in action,” Jon C. Frank, a soil fertility expert with International Ag Labs. “We plan to share our results with the community as part of encouraging smarter, better agriculture. Everyone from backyard gardeners to large-scale commercial greenhouse growers will benefit from this unique experiment.”

To acquaint the public with the Tomato Project and its findings, a field day is scheduled for Saturday, September 10. The event will consist of a teaching session with soil fertility expert Jon C. Frank and a tour of the plot. Commercial growers, backyard gardeners and journalists are all encouraged to come and enjoy the fruit of this ambitious project. More information is available on the registration page.

The Tomato Project consists of 7 rows of plants. Each row features a different fertility method, including an organic approach and three methods developed by International Ag Labs. Three of the rows use a well-established tree planting method that calls for digging a wide, deep hole and filling it in a specific way. In certain rows where fertilizer is applied, soil conductivity testing is being used to determine the ideal quantity and frequency. The project also demonstrates horizontal, or “extreme,” trellising, which is designed to grow lots of fruit in a small space.

The success of the Tomato Project will be determined by a combination of factors, including plant health, yield, nutrient content and taste testing. Because it’s typically the most difficult variable to increase in fruits and vegetables, nutrient density will be a special focus for the team.

Today, nutritional quality benchmarks for produce are notably absent – nearly every other consumer good has to meet a rigid standard. Fruits and vegetables, however, are sellable so long as they are not rotten or contaminated. The Tomato Project will measure nutrient density based on mineral content. Higher mineral content means the plant has more material from which to produce its nutrients. Project leaders plan to quantitatively define – for the first time – a nutrient-dense tomato.

“My prediction for the future,” says Frank, “is that a large share of the produce market will buy and sell food on the basis of nutrient density. The Tomato Project is going to help make that a reality. Right now, market share is divided between two systems: cheap food grown as a commodity, and organic food grown as a value-added alternative to commodity food. In the near future, nutrient dense foods will disrupt the marketplace and take prominence over both the cheap food and the organic food, because neither quantifies nutrient density.”