Royalties from Florida varieties help create better strawberries

Ted Campbell points to the strawberry fieldbehind his Dover, Fla., office to illustrate how the industry’s growers cooperate with university researchers to improve varieties and agronomic practices. It has a wide assortment of variety test plots, along with others testing herbicides, fungicides and replacements for methyl bromide.

“Growers here have been very smart about funding research projects,” says Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. “The big agribusiness companies don’t have much interest in testing products for small acreage crops like strawberries, so it’s pretty much up to the growers to get it done.”

A big share of that grower funding comes from royalties earned on sales of strawberry varieties developed in cooperation with University of Florida plant breeders.

“We’re developing varieties that have good adaptation to our hostile Florida environment,” Campbell says. “That makes them golden in the rest of the world. If they do well here, they’ll do well just about anywhere strawberries can grow. They are short day varieties that are productive on short daylight. The California strawberry varieties are more a long day type — they don’t work well here. Our Florida strawberries are growing across the world.”

Strawberries that trace their genetic roots to this very field by the association’s office can be found in places as far-flung as Spain, Turkey and South Africa.

“We have a licensing agreement with a person who sells them worldwide for us,” Campbell says. “Then we get the royalties, which are split with the university. That supports our other research and lets us develop more varieties.”

This year a young strawberry grower from Turkey is interning with the association to learn how to better grow and sell the crop.

“He’s growing our variety and he’s here to learn our cultural practices. Some other countries, like Turkey, don’t have the cooling capability we have in the U.S., and it makes their sanitation program less than desirable. He’s going to take back to Turkey what he learns here and that will give him a market advantage over there. He should have better shelf life and cleaner fruit. It’s going to cost him more, but it could be what distinguishes him from other growers and gives him better market opportunities.”

The association even sent 550,000 plants to Iraq in 2011 as part of a U.S. government-sponsored project designed to rebuild infrastructure in the war-torn nation and create jobs for Iraqi citizens.

“They put a guy in business as a strawberry grower,” Campbell says. “That kind of surprised us, but growing strawberries is a good thing. It will be interesting to see how the Iraqis do with it.”

Benefiting from Florida’s strawberry geneticsmakes good sense, he says. It’s unlikely the international buyers will produce berries that compete with Florida’s fresh crop, since strawberries are so perishable.

With solid research funding, Floridians are poised to take strawberry genetics to new levels, improving the berry in several ways.

“The strawberry genome was sequenced in 2010, so we now know which portals do what,” Campbell says. “We now know how to better enhance flavor, for one thing, There’s a project ongoing to enhance flavor using the North American wild strawberry, which has the greatest flavor ever. After being discovered by the Europeans, that wild strawberry was bred with the big strawberry from South America, and a couple hundred years later, we have commercial fruit resulting from that cross. But we’ve never captured that wild flavor — there’s a four-year project working on that.”

A current agronomic project aims at increasing disease resistance in new strawberry varieties. Genome sequencing simplifies that.

“You’re talking $250,000 to do those two projects,” Campbell says. “The international sales royalty stream gives us the money to do that. We’re learning how to enhance the product and improve quality for the consumer at the same time.”

A strawberry may appear simple, but its genetics are quite complex. It has eight chromosomes, all filled with genetic markers.

“It’s really tricky breeding strawberries, and they don’t grow from seed, which makes it even trickier,” he says.

“We’ll do 20,000 to 30,000 crosses a year and grow them out to see what we get. From those, we might have 100 survive the cut to the second year. Then after the third year, we’ve narrowed those down to about 10. By the fourth year, you know what you’re going to do. Sometimes, none of the crosses make the final cut. They have to improve on what’s already out there.”

University of Florida plant breeders do that work. They cooperate with researchers at Colorado State University, who grow out the experimental plants at Monte Vista, Colo., in a potato farming area.

“They dig them up and the plantsare brought back here and put under a lateral irrigation system,” Campbell says. “Then the University of Florida people evaluate them through the winter. They keep all kinds of statistics about when and how much they bear.”

The Festival variety developed in the grower association’s program has captured about half of Florida’s strawberry acreage. It came from a 1995 cross of Rosa Linda, a high yielding, well-shaped variety developed by the University of Florida, and Oso Grande, a good-shipping, large-fruited strawberry from California.

“It’s the best combination ever of quality, shipping, and taste,” he says. “It has been the worldwide workhorse for 10 years and is still very dominant — it just runs circles around anything else. What makes Festival so good is that it arrives; it has good taste, but it’s also a really good shipping strawberry. There are virtually no rejections with Festival. Consumer acceptance of it is very high, too.”

Florida now has a little more than 10,000 acres of strawberries, Campbell says. He’s not certain, because strawberry growers are not required to report plantings to the government, so no official figures exist.

He does know that the industry added about 700 acres for the current crop. This comes after a devastating December 2010 caused uncertainty in the strawberry business. The year ended on an upbeat note with good prices, and that grower attitude carried over to the new crop. When picking began in mid-November, the current crop looked good and fruit quality was good.

“We’re due for a good year, so we’re hoping this one is highly successful,” Campbell says.

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