Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Breeding Better Berries

 Driscolls white, red, and pink strawberry varieties.

Bloomberg profiles Driscoll's efforts to breed the next generation of strawberries:
A few years ago, during his commute across California’s Pajaro Valley, Phil Stewart began stopping more regularly at the Burger King in Watsonville. He wasn’t just there for the Whoppers. He was visiting a wild strawberry plant. Stewart, an affable 41-year-old with sandy hair, breeds the fruit for Driscoll’s, the largest player in the $5.6 billion U.S. berry market. He was struck by the plant’s vigor—sprouting at the edge of the sidewalk without much water or soil, blanketed in the exhaust of cars waiting at a stoplight. Stewart dropped in on it for two years, waiting for it to fruit. When at last he found two small berries on the plant and tasted one, it was delicious.
Strawberries grow almost everywhere in the world, though nowhere as bounteously as they do along this particular stretch of the California coast, about 95 miles south of San Francisco, where the Pajaro River empties into Monterey Bay. The Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, anchoring nearby in 1602, found wild strawberries in December, which was unheard of in Europe. Explorers to other parts of the New World also discovered strawberries with marvelous advantages in color, size, and flavor, and took botanical specimens home. Two of these crossed to yield the modern strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa, in the 18th century.
Today, California produces almost 29 percent of the world’s strawberries—$2.6 billion worth—a lot of that from the 14,200 acres of fields that surround Watsonville and neighboring Salinas....Driscoll’s breeding program predates the company itself. In 1944 a group of strawberry farmers founded the Strawberry Institute of California, dedicated to the development of new and better varieties. Driscoll Strawberry Associates, formed as a grower’s cooperative in 1953, merged with the institute in 1966, and got out of physical farming. Since then, the company has focused on the two ends of the supply chain.
Driscoll’s has a staff of 30 scientists devoted solely to strawberries, manipulating evolution at nine research stations in Watsonville, Southern California, Florida, Spain, Mexico, and the U.K. The company provides seedling plants to contracted growers. Then, when the growers harvest the berries, Driscoll’s packs, ships, and markets them to retailers. The growers get 85 percent of the revenue; Driscoll’s keeps the rest.
Driscoll’s is a private company and family-owned. The chairman, Miles Reiter, is the third generation of Reiters to run the business, and his daughter manages operations in Chile. Driscoll’s doesn’t disclose financial data but estimates that it has 34 percent market share of U.S. strawberry sales—48 percent in organic.
Until seeing this article, I'd never heard of Driscoll's strawberries.  Actually, that's only partially true.  A friend of mine from high school's dad raised a nice garden of strawberries.  Their name was Distl.  However, my grandma, who never met a word she couldn't mispronounce, always called him Driscol.

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