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Florida strawberry industry looks to new varieties to maintain identity

About 90 years ago, farmers around Plant City, FL, located midway between Tampa and Orlando, discovered that the sandy soil within a 30-mile radius produced exceptional strawberries. An industry was born and in short order Florida was providing 95 percent of the U.S. winter strawberry supply.

FL-Strawberry-varieties-1In recent years, players in other states have taken note of Florida’s wintertime advantages when it comes to producing premium berries. North Carolina’s SunnyRidge Farm and California’s Dole, Driscoll’s, Well-Pict and Cal-Giant have significant operations in Florida, some growing their own proprietary varieties, others contracting with local farmers for supply.

Meanwhile, competition from the growing Mexican industry has also nipped at what was once a clear home field advantage.

So is the Florida strawberry industry at risk of losing its identity?

“Well, we certainly hope not,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Plant City. “There’s not that deep a penetration, other than Driscoll’s, who has been here 20 years. Other [companies] generally create a growing agreement with an existing farmer here, they’re not growing Florida varieties, they’re trying other things. But our growers in Florida are pretty strong, they’re pretty sound competitors.”

Campbell and the growers he represents base their faith in the future on a handful of new varieties from the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences. Those new varieties are making waves in the Florida deal. Two, the Radiance and Winterstar, have quickly become program mainstays, and a third, Sensation, may become the industry standard in short order if the success of this year’s limited production continues.

Since its release in 2008, Radiance has quickly grown to represent two-thirds of the Florida crop. Winterstar, released in 2011, already claims 10 percent of the market share. Sensation is getting its first real-world experience this season with 20-25 acres in production “but that’s the one I’m taking home,” Campbell said. “They’re that good, they’re that distinguishable. That’s what we want to do: Can we create a distinguishable variety?”

Branding within a category — creating a berry that consumers associate with Florida — is the holy grail.

“The new variety model is the most important thing we’re doing right now. We’re breeding smarter, we’re not just making agronomists find a needle in the haystack, we’re making the needle bigger, using genetic markers that identify flavonoids and particular characteristics like disease resistance,” Campbell said. “We’ve got the toolbox open and we know which string to pull to get the end result. We’ve narrowed the funnel a little bit. We’re doing just as much work but we’re getting far more end-pointed results with what we’re trying to achieve. That’s what we’re seeing with Sensation and others: we’re able to bring a new variety to the commercial market in half the time than when I came here five years ago. It used to take 10 years to develop a variety from breeding to commercialization. We brought Sensation up in five years. We’re seeing improved quality. We’re looking at many of the traits — the size, the shelf life, the shape, the color, the architecture of the bush — that the growers really need to make them productive, but at the same time the top focus is on a happy consumer and consumer satisfaction, meaning flavor, aroma and shelf life.”

Equally important, the new varieties keep their most favorable characteristics throughout the growing season. Previous varieties might start off producing large berries that drop off in size as the season progresses, while others produce flushes of fruit rather than bear consistently. All three of Florida’s new players produce early and consistently.

Radiance has proven itself to be a workhorse and Winterstar an up-and-comer, but Sensation is the berry that has Florida growers most excited.

“It starts large and holds its size through the season, it’s pretty much ever-bearing, the flavor has won every taste test we’ve given, whether it was trained testing people or complete amateurs. I took some home to a party at my house last Friday night and people were knocking me over, ‘What is this, where can I buy this?’ They’re that good, they’re that distinctive,” Campbell said. “We’re looking at this thing as a way to really help sustain the Florida industry. If we can create a point of differentiation that stays consistent and holds its flavor throughout the season, all the growing attributes seem pretty good.”

He continued, “We’re high on it. I would hope to see a lot of them in the field next year. We gave away all we had this year, said, ‘Here, grow this, see what you think.’ And I think we’re going to get some pretty interesting feedback. I want the growers to get enthusiastic about it and then the next piece of the puzzle is I want a couple of retailers to get enthusiastic about it. And then maybe we can make a marriage out of that.”