Strawberry farmers use science to grow perfect berry

- UF researchers said they have introduced many strawberry varieties over the years.

They have names like Festival, Radiance and Sweet Sensation.

Royalties from those varieties pay for new research to find the next better berry. Whitaker says they're closing in on a new variety that can be planted and brought to market  earlier.

It hasn't been named yet, but he says they're hoping to introduce it in Fall 2017.

It's hard to top the taste, but the next Florida strawberry could bring the sweetness even earlier.

SEARCHING FOR A BETTER BERRY

As Plant City prepares for the Strawberry Festival, farmers are competing with huge shipments of imported berries. Dr. Vance Whitaker of the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research Center said he is working to help the Florida industry compete.

"It's really critical right now," says Whitaker. "The last four or five years have seen an explosion of imported fruit  coming from central Mexico." 

Whitaker says Florida growers need new varieties of strawberries that can be planted earlier so they can ripen and get to market sooner.

"They need earlier fruit," Whitaker says. "By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, they really want to have volume."

BERRY BREEDING GROUND

Whitaker and his team are breeding new varieties of strawberries in fields and greenhouses at the research center in Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County. His greenhouse is filled with hundreds of  numbered strawberry plants.

"This is where we choose the parents," he says. "We take the pollen form one and put it onto the flower." 

It's not G-M-O science. It's accelerating and directing the natural breeding process. By choosing the parent plants with desirable characteristics, Whitaker says they can produce offspring that could give growers what they need.

"It has to perform well when it's hot, when it's cold, when it's rainy," says Whitaker. "There's no such thing as the perfect strawberry," he says, "Because we can always make progress."

SWEETNESS SOONER    

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