Over the years, I have followed with interest the work of the Utah state Legislature. We have a designated state tree, a state bird, a state dinosaur and even a state grass. I have searched in vain for a state vegetable.
So, I am suggesting not only a state vegetable but also a very specific variety, the Hamson tomato.
It is impossible to imagine this now, but Utah once was home to vast fields of canning tomatoes. These plants provided cash to farmers, jobs to those who processed them and tasty treats to those who ate them.
Dr. Alvin Hamson grew up in Lava Hot Springs, receiving degrees at Utah State University and Cornell University in New York. It was there that he caught the attention of some of the country's top tomato-variety experts with his canning crop research.
He explains, "My thesis study was on the firmness of tomatoes. We made crosses of small but very firm tomatoes with medium-sized tomatoes. We then determined that the firmness came from high pectin levels in the tomatoes."
His research attracted the top scientist from the Campbell Soup company who visited Utah to talk about Utah tomatoes. Hansom had been hired as the Utah State University Extension Service vegetable specialist, a position he held for many decades.
"Campbell's had wanted to pack whole tomatoes in Utah but tried without success. They were growing DelMonte T2 and T3 and Moscow but could never get the quality. They never had their own canneries here but worked with the Woods Cross Cannery.
"They asked me to work with them. I told them if they would make the crosses, I would take the progeny and test them in Utah. I rented 15 acres from Schmidt's, a grower in West Jordan, and planted the plants at a 4- by 4-foot spacing so I could see each one," he said.
Hamson explains they were looking for a better tomato for Utah growers. "This tomato had to fit our season, so it had to mature in about 70 days. We wanted good size but it did not need to be the largest. We were looking for a firm tomato that had small cellular spaces and would hold its shape.
"I spent the summer selecting the best. I started with 150 different kinds and eliminated 100 of those the first year. I then selected from the remaining kinds and grew them the next year. I then reduced the number of varieties to 20 that year."
After intensive selection, Hamson reduced the number to four and invited the people from Campbell's to Utah. After walking the fields for a day, they settled on one they designated DX54.
After extensive testing, the tomato passed muster, and a Dr. Porter from the University of California at Davis noted, "We have the best tomato for whole pack in the United states and possibly the whole world."
Unfortunately, California tomatoes could be direct seeded for much less than growing them from transplants in Utah. This doomed Utah's canning industry. But Hamson continued to select and improve the tomato, eventually coming up with the DX52-12.
This tomato was eventually given to the Utah Agriculture Experiment Station, and it became quite popular with market and home gardeners and the canners who remained here.
Later, Demetrios Agathangelides of Mountain Valley Seed Company in Salt Lake City promoted the seed through his nursery and seed company. He currently maintains the seed stock with the Experiment Station. He decided to rename the numbered variety the 'Hamson' tomato to honor the person who worked so hard at developing it.
While Hamson favors the tomato that bears his name, he also is uniquely qualified to offer excellent tomato-producing advice to home gardeners. "Grow transplants for about five weeks and get a sturdy plant that is about 5 inches high that is not too leggy," he says.
"Plant them and apply a handful of high phosphorous fertilizer 4 inches to the side and 6 inches deep. Irrigate them after planting, and when the fruits are about the size of a golf ball, fertilize them with a little ammonium sulfate.
"Keep the weeds out by hand-weeding them and keep the soil moisture even, not too wet or too dry. There is not much else you need to do, as they have few insects or diseases that bother them."
As I interviewed him in his easy chair, I realized the impact that Hamson has had on commercial vegetable growers and home gardeners in our state for more than 50 years. Although he is retired, his tomato will continue to grace local gardens for years to come.
Larry A. Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.