Have you ever marveled at the extensive variety of fruits and vegetables available these days? At the Agoura Hills Farmers Market alone, one vendor had 14 varieties of tomatoes, while another had four kinds of squash and three kinds of corn.
Dubbed "designer produce" by some gourmet chefs and food aficionados, these fruits and vegetables usually fall under two categories: hybrid or heirloom.
Hybrid produce varieties are created by cross breeding within the same type of fruit or vegetable. They are not genetically modified. Farmers or plant breeders select the plants that they want to cross breed based on color, texture or taste. Then the pollen of one plant (male parent) is transferred to the flower of another plant (female parent). The trial and error process can sometimes take several years before the desired results are achieved.
About 60 years ago, hybrid corn was introduced with much success. The bicolor corn sold at the Tapia Farms stall is an example of a hybrid corn. Composed of roughly 80 percent yellow kernels mixed in with 20 percent white kernels, this hybrid is believed to be sweeter than its yellow or white counterparts.
"It's a popular variety of corn and we sell a lot of it, because it's easy to cook. Just boil, microwave or roast," said Frank Herrera, a Tapia Farms employee.
Among some popular hybrid fruits are the loganberry, which is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry, and the tangelo, which is a cross between a tangerine and pomelo or grapefruit. The broccoflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower, is now a fixture in most farmers markets and grocery stores.
When the techniques were just beginning to be used, they were limited mostly to home gardeners because of the high labor costs involved. Commercial growers jumped in when they realized that the benefits and improvements outweighed the cost of production.
Aside from being new and improved versions, hybrids have several benefits: new disease resistances, earlier maturity, better quality, uniformity, superior flavor and more vigorous plants. Another bonus is that hybrids provide a fresh mix of nutrients and phytochemicals or disease-preventing plant substances.
Heirlooms are plants that were grown before the 1950s. Older generations were believed to have saved the best seeds from the best plants and improved them over time. The result is adaptable, stronger plants that are drought-resistant in dry, hot areas and cold resistant in chilly climates. Open-pollinated and grown from seeds, there is a long list of heirlooms—and include beans, zucchinis and tomatoes.
Tomatoes are plentiful at Yang's Fresh Produce, including red heirlooms, purple Cherokees, red zebras, black zebras, hollow reds and pineapple heirlooms.
"This is only a small sample. I think there are thousands of heirloom tomatoes," said Keang Yang, whose family owns the Fresno farm where the tomatoes are harvested. While it is almost impossible to get an exact count, experts estimate that there are at least 4,000 varieties of heirloom tomatoes alone.
According to Yang, the heirloom tomatoes are popular because they are flavorful and have less acid compared with other varieties. The skins on heirloom tomatoes are also thinner.
Over at Tapia Farms, the dark green and golden zucchinis, both heirlooms, were also abundant. "They're in demand because they're versatile," said Herrera. "You can make zucchini bread or use them as salad toppings. You can also grill, boil or sauté them."
Generally, heirloom produce has stronger, more intense flavors. They also come in many different and unique shapes, colors and sizes.
Whether hybrid or heirloom, take your pick. Sky's the limit.