Building A Better Berry

May 11, 2010


How well do you know your strawberries? When you pick up a carton of berries at your local store, do you know their provenance, their names? Like most, I took mine for granted, assuming one berry was more or less like another.

On a recent trip to Central California, I had the opportunity to visit one of the organic farms that supplies überproducer Driscoll's, to learn a little more about what exactly goes into building a better berry.

The coastal community of Watsonville's fertile land and cool, temperate climate make optimal conditions for growing strawberries, and the landscape is carpeted with rows of the plants as far as the eye can see. Here, Phil Stewart's family farm is one of several who provide berries to Driscoll's. For those who think farming is a simple matter, consider this: Stewart actually has a Ph.D. in Horticulture with a specific focus on strawberries. Yes, he is a Doctor of Strawberries. The Strawberry Whisperer, if you will.

Phil, pictured above left with Patrick Sheehy of Driscoll's, shared the process behind breeding the plants. Strawberries are annuals, and so must be replanted each year. But before the planting begins in earnest, Phil and his team must first determine which varieties to plant.

For those of us in Northern California, some variety's names may be familiar from the farmer's markets: Albion and Seascape often grace the stands at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market. But Driscoll's develops their own proprietary varieties.

By method of cross-breeding, they end up with some 26,000 varieties at first. A small percentage of these will germinate and grow, even fewer will fruit, and just a few might actually pass muster over a two-year test period and make it to market.

Many factors go into deciding whether a variety is worthy of production. Flavor is certainly one of them, but shape, color, yield, rain tolerance and of course shelf life also must be considered.


Unfortunately, this does mean that sometimes they develop a variety that excels in flavor, but fails in shelf life or rain tolerance, and is therefore not suitable for production. But those varieties are continually reintroduced in the gene pool. Ultimately, a scant few varieties strike the perfect balance of all factors.

While new test varieties are being put to the test, they have cryptic monikers such as 96R116. But once a variety has proven itself worthy, it is given a name and put into production. Currently, Del Rey, San Juan and Takara are among the varieties being grown on Stewart's farm. But you won't find the names on the packaging. Driscoll's goal is to produce berries with great consistency. In other words, it shouldn't matter which variety you're getting, so long as it's good.

This kind of large-scale production may seem out of step with today's drive toward restoring heirloom varietals, but this is not Monsanto-like monoculture nor is it genetic engineering. It's classic genetics, using cross-breeding to coax out the best traits through sheer trial and error. Maintaining the berries' genetic diversity is key to the long-term sustainability of the process.

Once berries are ready for harvest, it is an almost entirely manual effort to pick them. Pickers learn how to wrest them from the plant with a quick snap of the wrist, severing the fruit from the stem neatly. It's not as easy as it looks, and it's back-breaking work.

Stewart is also not only interested in chasing the ideal Driscoll's berry. He dabbles in more experimental combinations as well. Phil shared one of his more esoteric creations, a berry that remains almost pearly white; the tiny seeds blush red when the fruit ripens.


It's unlikely you'll see this berry on the shelf anytime soon. Aside from the challenge of determining when the berry is actually ripe, there would also be the matter of educating the market to accept a white berry. Pity, for the berry tasted quite good indeed, with bright notes of tropical fruit and citrus.

Another variety, 44R40, was luridly red. This had been bred with a European variety called Mara des Bois, which is famous for its intense and musky flavor. The reason for this is a volatile compound, methyl anthranilate, that gives it a candy-like aroma reminiscent alternately of concord grapes or bubble gum. This one seems to have more commercial promise. I know I'd seek it out.

This epic saga, this great and complex effort, culminates in one simple result: Cartons of bright, red berries at markets all around the country.



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