Getting to Know Fred Hempel

If you’ve ever grown an Orange Jazz tomato, a bountiful sunset-hued, yellow-striped beefsteak with an almost peach-like flavor, you have Fred Hempel to thank. If you’ve ever eaten a Blush tomato—an elongated, marbled yellow cherry tomato with yellow stripes and a taste reminiscent of tropical fruit—you’ve enjoyed Hempel’s most widely sold variety, which he created with input from his then-eight-year-old son.

For more than a dozen years, the work of this San Francisco Bay Area geneticist-turned-farmer-and-tomato-breeder has resulted in as many as 20 new varieties of tomatoes, the seeds of which are now sold at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Burpee Seeds, and other select companies.

On three-quarters of an acre in Sunol, California, his Baia Nicchia Farm acts as a prolific showcase, growing his best tomatoes—as many as 50,000 pounds each year—that are spotlighted on menus at such acclaimed Bay Area restaurants as Boulevard, Prospect, Zola, Madera, Bird Dog, Commis, Lalime’s, and Marzano.

Hempel has always been passionate about tomatoes; as a kid, he would trot out to his mom’s garden with a salt shaker to eat ripe ones straight off the vines. Even as a biotech geneticist researching lycopene, the phytochemical found in tomatoes, Hempel spent every lunch hour at a community garden plot, trying to breed his own tomatoes, before finally giving in to his dreams.

“I quit that safe job to do something crazy by starting up a farming business with no business background,’’ he says. “At the time, there was a boring breeding industry for supermarket tomatoes, and an heirloom industry that didn’t believe in breeding because it thought that everything that was good had already been created. I thought that I could do genetics in a way where I could eventually make something that was valuable.’’

At 57, Hempel continues to do just that, creating more and more varieties that meet his high standards for disease resistance, and above all, top-shelf flavor and color. He trials new breeds at the famed Chef’s Garden in Ohio and at a family-run farm in Mexico to ensure they can withstand plant diseases that aren’t as common in temperate California.

Whereas most farmers are trying to produce what they can sell to the greatest amount of people, Fred is pushing the envelope on entirely new things.

Sporting fanciful names such as Lucky Tiger and Sunrise Bumble Bee, the seeds for his seven striped cherry tomatoes under Hempel’s Artisan Seeds label sell well at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. “Whereas most farmers are trying to produce what they can sell to the greatest amount of people, Fred is pushing the envelope on entirely new things,’’ says Pete Zuck, vegetable product manager for Johnny’s. “He works on the cutting edge of culinary breeding.’’

Hempel still does it the painstaking way, using tweezers to transfer pollen from one plant to another. Once seeds set, he plants them, and he repeats the process until he gets what he’s after. It can take anywhere from three and a half to seven years to create a new breed he’s satisfied with. His patience pays off, though, with tomatoes that both regular growers and renowned chefs can’t get enough of.

“It’s like having your song being played on the radio,’’ he says. “It’s rewarding to create something that people adopt as cool.’’