Harry Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, debates on the categorization of tomatoes and expresses his love of working with tomatoes and their chemical flavor.
Seed World: What’s your favorite book?
Harry Klee: I enjoy history. Right now I’m reading and enjoying Grant, a biography of U.S. Grant. It’s a fascinating story of how the man was essentially washed out of the army and persisted through absolute failure to emerge as the savior of the American republic. In that same context, I also truly enjoyed Band of Rivals, the Lincoln biography.
SW: Which are your favorite: fruit or vegetables?
HK: Tough one. The Supreme Court says the tomato is a vegetable but botanists say it’s a fruit. That said, fresh tomatoes are not my favorite food. We’ve tasted hundreds of different varieties and they vary from fabulous to really terrible. I like my tomatoes processed or diluted out with a salad or sandwich. Overall, I’d have to say that I prefer fruits – other than tomatoes.
SW: Favorite hobby?
HK: I’m a foodie. I love to cook and pair my foods with wines. In my job, I’ve been very lucky to have traveled quite a bit. I’ve been exposed to many outstanding cuisines and gotten to visit some of the top wine producing areas and vineyards in the world. Travels to places like France and Italy that combine the very best food with top wines are some of my fondest memories.
SW: What drove you to work specifically with tomatoes?
HK: It’s a hugely important crop. According to the FAO, it’s the number one fruit or vegetable in the world in dollar value. It’s a huge part of Florida’s economy and I happen to work at a land grant university whose mission is to support agriculture. But beyond those motivations, it’s a huge opportunity. Consumers love to hate tomatoes. Everyone wants to know why commercial tomatoes don’t taste like a backyard heirloom tomato. Being at a university gives me the luxury of taking the long term view. I can work on very challenging problems that take a lot of time to sort out. A company couldn’t justify a ten plus year effort to understand and fix the flavor problem.
SW: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment while working with the University of Florida?
HK: It’s taken well over a decade but we now know a lot about the chemistry of tomato consumer preferences. We know which of the hundreds of chemicals in a fruit are the most important to making people like a tomato. And equally important, we know the genetics that controls how the fruit makes those chemicals.
SW: What’s your latest research project?
HK: Having defined the chemistry and genetics of fruit flavor, we’re now in a position to actually improve it. We’re working with breeders in one of the major seed companies to improve flavor without compromising all the hard earned gains they have achieved on the production side. It’s a lot of work but we know how to do it and I think within the next few years we can make a tomato with vastly superior flavor that growers – who incidentally are not for the most part paid anything for flavor – will actually want to adopt.
SW: What current research excites you the most?
HK: Actually what excites me a lot is the interaction that we’ve developed with home gardeners. We’ve released several new varieties that have all the flavor of the best heirlooms but produce double or even triple the amount of fruit. Home gardeners are so excited to try them and give us useful feedback on their performance. We’ve now sent seeds to eleven thousand individuals in all 50 states and 38 countries. It’s really fun to get an email from some distant part of the U.S. praising our varieties and sending us proud pictures of baskets of beautiful fruit. While our ultimate goal is to improve the commercial product, individual feedback from excited gardeners of all ages is really rewarding.