Berry industry professionals continue to invest in research for the future of the category.
Research surrounding the health benefits of berries is popular for marketing efforts, while research about better varieties often tops the list of priorities for growers.
Jim Grabowski, director of marketing for Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict Berries, said the company views research for better varieties as an ongoing program.
“We constantly have new varieties in various stages of testing, always looking for the ‘perfect’ berry, one that meets all our needs for flavor, taste, color, shaping and yield,” Grabowski said.
Marcos Nuques, West Coast sales manager for Giumarra International Berry, Los Angeles, agreed planting new varieties as an ongoing process is vital.
“There are new and exciting varieties being planted and tested each year to continue to bring consumers a better-tasting, hardier berry,” he said.
Companies that grow only proprietary varieties also understand the challenge of communicating about their research-backed berries to the general public.
“We like to think that while the customer may not know that Well-Pict grows only its own proprietary varieties, they know that they prefer the taste of the Well-Pict berry and will continue to look for that brand in his or her store,” Grabowski said.
New varieties are also important to increasing the supply of fresh berries as demand continues to grow.
Eric Crawford, president of Fresh Results LLC, Sunrise, Fla., said he has seen a lot of success with using new blueberry varieties in the southern states.
“This year has been really interesting in terms of new varieties because we saw Georgia really developing those, such as emerald star, snow chaser, and other varieties that retailers really like a lot,” Crawford said.
Overall, new varieties may be a game changer to the market because it will allow for more volume and better quality out of regions that were unable to produce those results in the past.
The new production in Georgia rivals production in Florida.
“With Georgia getting involved in new varieties, they are able to participate in that high market window that Florida used to have pretty much to itself,” Crawford said.
New varieties also allow for other grower benefits, like decreased labor.
Caylan Gingerich, blueberry procurement director for Gourmet Trading Co., Redondo Beach, Calif., said the blueberry industry is moving toward an emphasis on varieties that can be machine-harvested, along with the always important traits of disease-resistance and an extended shelf life.
“Labor is becoming an issue for the industry and there is desire for improved machine harvesters to help alleviate the stress of machine picking for fresh market sales,” Gingerich said in an e-mail.
Right now, hand-picked blueberries are the majority of what is sent to fresh market sales and with growers concerned about labor availability in the future, Gingerich believes it will be a continued focus of berry variety research moving forward.
Export markets have been growing as a result of better varieties as well.
“We see berries being shipped as far as the Middle East today and I only see this growing as new varieties are resilient to decay and can handle the longer shipping times,” Gingerich said.
Cat McKenzie, marketing director for the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission, said the breeding program at Oregon State University has been great for finding better varieties.
“We’re always exploring new ones,” she said.
Recently, the commission partnered with the Washington Red Raspberry Commission through a specialty crop block grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture and USDA. The program was called “Enhancing New Product and Menu Item Development with Northwest Caneberries,” and it examined the needs of end-users and chefs.
“We wanted to explore the link between people who create new menu items and finding the best berry varieties for those items,” McKenzie said.
The study, which ended in May, is still in the early phases of analyzing results, but McKenzie is hopeful there will be some exciting trends to come from the project.
“It’s good to get input from berry growers on new varieties, and we do that frequently, but this allowed us to interact with end users, who might need a particular berry with certain characteristics to create a new menu item that can be mass produced for a chain restaurant, like Applebee’s for example,” she said.
One new blackberry variety is currently being tested in Oregon, called the Columbia Star, developed through the USDA Agriculture Research Service.
“It’s in the grower trial stage right now, and it’s very promising in terms of yield and taste, but we’ll have to see how the trials turn out,” McKenzie said.
A U.S. Plant Patent has been applied for.