Tomatoes by the Bay

Baia Nicchia breeds new flavors

By Romney Steele


Almost ready for prime time, this currently unnamed tomato, routine winner of Baia Nicchia informal taste tests, will be released in 2007.

As the soil warms and gardeners don their gloves, tomato seedlings are often the first things to go into the ground. Give them lots of sunshine, and in a few months’ time, they will grace your garden, or a large pot, with their shiny globes.

By late summer, our local farmers’ markets spill over with what the French affectionately called pommes d’amour (love apples). In fact, it can be a total love fest between stalls with buyers lusting over the beefsteaks, Brandy Wines, and Sun Golds that arrive from valley farms, our own harvest playing second fiddle to the array of offerings. At prices hitting upwards of $5 dollars a pound for gourmet and heirloom tomatoes in peak season, a bag of them can cost a small fortune. So why not grow your own? Growing your own can be particularly rewarding come July and August, when they have a chance to ripen on the vine and are at the height of flavor. For sure, growing tomatoes in the Bay Area with its low-lying fog can be a challenge, but with the right varieties and a little care, it is not impossible.

For years, Fred Hempel of Hayward has been growing and breeding tomatoes in his backyard with the goal of developing new varieties specific to the Bay Area. A scientist by profession, and a plant biologist trained in genetics, Hempel believes everyone can grow tasty, delicious tomatoes in their gardens, even in San Francisco, where he suggests choosing cool weather tomatoes and smaller varieties. His backyard hobby grew into a bona fide business, which he and partner Jill Shepard incorporated in 2005 under the name Baia Nicchia (meaning Bay Niche in Italian). The small company breeds gourmet tomato plants for Bay Area gardens and sells the seedlings at local farmers’ markets. Shepard, who has a background in business and customer service, operates the day-to-day aspects of the company and is the friendly face you will see at the farmers’ market. Ben Tucker, a friend with whom Hempel has been a longtime collaborator, has since joined the partnership. While Tucker is a minor investor, he spearheads community farming collaborations, and bring his considerable experience in science education to the garden bench.

But what is it they actually do? As plant breeders, Baia Nicchia selectively tests varieties and, in some cases, creates new varieties of tomatoes that will grow particularly well in the Bay Area, something no other company or farmer is doing. “Our goal is to generate continued interest in new varieties all the time,” says Hempel. With hundreds of varieties available in the marketplace, it all comes down to selecting the right kind for a particular growing region. According to Hempel, there are maybe 10 or 15 varieties that do well here, and he plans to expand that number by nurturing regional-specific plants that taste great and thrive at the same time. Considering that California is the largest producer of fresh tomatoes in the U.S., and that there are many seed growers across the country, Baia Nicchia is in fact, filling a niche market–hence their company name.

“I think it’s a viable business,” says Hempel, who seems unfazed by the commercial plant market he is up against. His business model demands a lot of patience and hope, two things he displays with boyish confidence. “There is no (other) company that cares about breeding (specifically) for the Bay Area itself.”

Not that he is competing. Hempel’s philosophy is grounded in community farming, not in big business. Some of his earliest plant trials were grown at Hayward Community Gardens, with whom he has an alliance and continues to share space. “One of our goals as a business is to grow through collaborations, including collaborations with non-profits and schools,” writes Hempel, in a recent e-mail exchange. As with many of Baia Nicchia’s collaborations, the possibilities within that collaboration are numerous, and a project may include breeding, soil testing, or providing seedlings for sale at community farmers’ markets, among other things.

Last season, Baia Nicchia grew their seedlings at the site of the Alameda Point Collaborative, a 34-acre urban community and plant nursery on the former naval air station in Alameda. Discussion is on the table for a possible future collaboration with the collective, and there is general interest in developing collaborations with schools and various community organizations. A new project with Tennyson High School in Hayward will allow students to study genetics by looking at the results of genetic crosses with tomatoes.

“It is a natural fit for us,” says Hempel, of their work with schools, and it “depends on what the school’s want to do.” One such school is ASA Academy in Oakland, an independent and forward-thinking middle school focused on science education for African American youth. Recently, Baia Nicchia had the ASA students testing fertilizers for them. The several-months-long study compared organic and non-organic fertilizers at different strengths. The outcome? There is “no good reason not to be organic,” says Hempel, who initially thought the non-organic fertilizers would win out and was pleasantly surprised that they did not. Baia Nicchia is considering a possible long-term partnership with ASA that would include both science and entrepreneurship.

This is where Ben Tucker comes in. Drawing on his extensive background in science-based education (he was involved with GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, a hands-on primary, and secondary school-based science education program) and has managed early academic outreach programs at UC Berkeley) and his experience with underserved communities, Tucker sees these collaborations as an appropriate direction and a chance to stay connected. “We’re interested in collaborations,” he says of their involvement with community groups and schools, and “where (it) is a nice fit.” Recently retired, Tucker fondly recalls growing tomatoes in a tiered garden in the Bay View area of San Francisco as a child, and he now grows them in a sunny spot on the deck of his apartment in Berkeley. As the point person for Baia Nicchia’s outreach program, he plans to work with charter schools, community, and faith-based organizations.

Navigating the terrain of farming and the ins and outs of breeding plants is a complicated story. The pros and cons of genetically crossing plants can be even more disconcerting to a lay gardener, or to those who just want the satisfaction of seeing their garden bright with shiny red tomatoes. But it is worth noting that amateur and professional breeders have been crossing tomato plants for generations. It is very likely that some of the heirloom varieties we know of today may be the result of such deliberate crosses.

In theory, Hempel uses age-old breeding practices (cross-pollinating one variety with another) to come up with a new variety that has a mix of characteristics from the two original varieties. But this is only the beginning. It takes years for a variety to stabilize, “such that all the plants produced in a generation are identical,” says Hempel. Unlike commercial hybrids however, his plants are given the chance to settle down, a process known as “dehybridization,” and eventually they produce off-spring that are copies of themselves. In other words, the tomatoes are genetically the same. As with heirloom tomatoes, you can save the seeds and plant them in successive years. This is something you can’t do with commercial hybrid tomatoes.

Since time is a huge factor in the growing and production of a new tomato variety, and chance may also play a role, success is measured one plant at a time. For example, the cheekily named, Lucinda Williams, a proprietary cross between a Silvery Fir Tree tomato with a Green Zebra, is four years in the making, and will be sold for the first time this year. Lucinda tomatoes have the tanginess of a Green Zebra, and the delicate leaves of a Silvery Fir Tree, and are abundant producers.  Some varieties are the result of “natural-occurring mutations,” and are chance winners. Baia Nicchia’s Vesuvio is the offspring of a single San Marzano plant (the prized, plum-like tomato from Southern Italy) that grew as a vigorous bush instead of a vine. The original plant came from seed purchased at a market in Naples, and all of the seeds from that plant produced like plants, and so did the next generation, and the next. Vesuvio has the same rich taste and cooking qualities as a San Marzano, according to Hempel, and yet is better suited to container growth in our area.

Currently, Baia Nicchia sells less than a dozen varieties. One, the Sun Gold, a gourmet, yellow cherry tomato from Japan, is a commercial hybrid. Three are novel varieties, like Lucinda. Several are true-breeding heirloom varieties. The Cherokee Purple, a fist-size “black” heirloom tomato, originally grown by the Cherokee Indians, is a favorite, and doesn’t seem to mind the coastal weather, says Hempel. All of Baia Nicchia’s tomatoes are selected for quality traits, such as taste, color, shape, and productivity.

In early February, I visited with Hemple at the Oxford Tract Greenhouses in Berkeley, where he rents space. There were a dozen or so plants in full growth and a rash of new starts. He explained that the mature plants go to his backyard for further growing and testing, and then they proceed on to an informal network of gardener friends around the region for site specific testing.

Look for Baia Nicchia’s tomato plants at the Alameda Farmers’ Market, the Union City Farmers’ Market, and at the Tuesday afternoon market in Berkeley at Derby and M.L.K. Way. Hempel and Shepard also author a blog, where you can find helpful hints on growing (such as Hempel’s suggestion to wait as late as you can to plant seedlings in the ground, and then stagger the plantings so that successive harvests can last into the fall). The blog has plenty of information about Baia Nicchia’s tomato varieties.



Writer Romney Steele (AKA Nani) grew up in a family owned restaurant on the central coast, where she first learned to cook. She is interested in food economies and community gardening programs and has a fondness for lemon trees. Romney lives in Oakland with her two children.