Grape breeding firm works on varietal development

07/02/2012 11:58:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Over the years, the apple industry has been able to successfully create varietal awareness among buyers and consumers.

David Cain, who leads fruit-breeding efforts at International Fruit Genetics LLC, sees no reason why the table grape industry can’t do the same.

“It’s been done with apples, so now people recognize Pink Lady, Honeycrisp and gala,” Cain said.

“But I think it’s a difficult thing. There’s some resistance (with table grapes) on the part of chain stores. At the same time, it can be useful to build that customer loyalty.”

He points to the efforts of International Fruit Genetics to develop table grape varieties with distinctive traits as reason for his optimism.

Among the varieties to Cain and the breeding firm’s credit are Sweet Celebration, Sweet Jubilee, Sweet Sunshine, Sweet Surrender and Cotton Candy. More are nearing release, he said.

The firm was founded by Jack Pandol Jr. and the Stoller family, owners of Sunridge Nurseries, in 2001, he said.

International Fruit Genetics develops the varieties, patents them, licenses them worldwide, and sets acreage limits and minimum quality standards.

For example, Sweet Celebration — a crunchy, cherry red, mid- to late-season seedless grape with a large berry — must have a brix rating of at least 20. Four marketers have U.S. rights to the grape — Grapery, Pandol Bros. Inc., Jasmine Vineyards Inc. and Castle Rock Vineyards.

Licensees also must agree to pay a per-box production royalty to the breeding firm “in exchange for us not just selling as many plants as we can sell like a lot of traditional breeding programs do,” Cain said.

“That’s part of the incentive for people to pay the royalty.”

International Fruit Genetics isn’t a competitor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s public grape breeding program, said Cain, himself a former USDA grape breeder.

Instead, he said the private breeding firm works to develop grapes with unique traits that can be licensed exclusively to a small group of grower-packer-shippers.

USDA, on the other hand, conducts more basic public research, such as its latest work trying to develop Pierce’s disease- and powdery mildew-resistant table grape varieties.

When developing new varieties, Cain uses plant material from worldwide sources housed at the USDA’s National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Davis, Calif., and from the University of Arkansas.

Everything is done using tradition breeding, which can be painstaking and sometimes tedious, Cain said.

From about 500,000 crosses made each spring, Cain whittles them down to about 9,000 seedlings that are eventually planted in the field for further evaluation.

When he finds a selection with the characteristics he likes, Cain and his crew propagate it and plant 18 vines, splitting the plantings between two pruning methods.

By the end of the second year, the vines produce enough fruit for evaluation.

Some is put into cold storage trials, where it will be held for four, eight and 12 weeks and evaluated along the way.

Workers also pack one small box of each potential release on pallets shipped to different supermarket chains so they can evaluate them with their staff, he said.

If a selection draws positive comments, two acres are planted for expanded evaluations.

“We’ll pack several hundred boxes and give them out to selected retailers so they can actually put it on the retail shelves and see how consumers like it,” Cain said.

From the time a cross is first made until the breeding firm decides to license a variety takes several years, he said.

The initial cross behind Sweet Celebration, for example, was made in 2001. It’s just now starting to hit supermarket shelves with volume.



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