Oct 11, 2019
Driscoll’s growth starts with plant

Augustine Renteria has been with Driscoll’s for 31 years. Please excuse him if he treats the strawberry plants he is nurturing at the mega berry company’s California breeding grounds as children. To him, that’s exactly what they are.

“The varieties are similar to humans,” said the farm manager of The Company Ranch in Aromas, California, near Driscoll’s headquarters. “With the plants – when you put them in the ground in late October and November – and then winter comes, the plant looks like a baby when it’s a newborn. The plant will not talk. Winter comes, and then we don’t see the plants moving. I see the plants every aday in the winter. When the winter is almost over, in March, normally, the weather changes. Then, from one week to another, you can see the response of the plant. Then the plant is starting to take off. A newborn child can’t talk. Maybe he has a stomach ache, but we can’t always know that because he can’t talk until after a year or so. It’s the same thing with the strawberry plants.”

Renteria (pictured above) was one of the hosts for a group of retailers and buyers visiting Driscoll’s as a prelude to the Organic Produce Summit held out of Monterey, California, in early July.

Strawberries are California’s fourth-highest-grossing crop, and 88% of the strawberries in the United States are grown there. Renteria is part of Driscoll’s effort to remain the market leader.

Driscoll’s 20-acre breeding facility features 10 acres of plantings – half of which are non-fumigated – where eight varieties were trialed this summer, in preparation for possible production by the company’s cadre of independent growers.

“Some varieties do pretty well here, but maybe across the railroad, they do a little bit different,” Renteria said in outlining the challenges of finding a productive selection. “Some varieties like heat, others don’t. That’s why we have different growers’ locations, because we want to see how the varieties respond over there. Based on that, we can recommend certain planting days.”

Amy Edmondson is a research associate in Driscoll’s strawberry breeding program.

Amy Edmondson, a research associate in
Driscoll’s strawberry breeding program,
speaks to a tour group. Photos: Gary Pullano

“The main purpose of the test plot here is to provide new varieties for our Watsonville and Salinas growers, both conventional and organic,” Edmondson said. “We have 25%-30% organic acreage in this district, and it’s increasing. The purpose of our nonfumigated half of the test plot is to find the strongest selections.”

“Pests and diseases build up when you can’t fumigate, so we want to select the strongest from our populations,” she said. “Every year we evaluate at least 25,000 unique individual seedlings, the first step at seeing new germplasm. We grow them in the non-fumigated. There’s two copies of each plant. If one plant dies and doesn’t do well, we move on. We want the strongest to survive.”

Edmondson said the seedlings are observed every week from May to September, with a taste hunt underway for the best selections. “We’re screening out all of the bad ones so you guys don’t have to suffer. Only the best ones, hopefully, make it to the market.”

Of the 25,000 seedlings, roughly 1% are advanced to the next level – so maybe 250 seedlings advance to stage ones.

“Stage ones are planted here in our non-fumed test plot because we want to get one more year of screening in a tougher, harsher environment,” Edmondson said. “We have 10 plants per plot at the stage one level, as opposed to seedlings, that only have two plants. Each year we slightly ramp up the qualities that we evaluate in the field. The nursery is ramping up the ones that we advance, as well. All of this is in preparation for future commercial introduction.”

RELATED: Driscoll’s organic program takes off

From the stage one in the nonfumigated plots, about 1% – or 25 plants, will advance to stage two.

“In stage two, we start trialing them in growers’ fields to start getting a different perspective of how they will perform,” she said. “Different growers grow things differently.”

She said commercial growers are dialed into whatever is on their acres, coming from the test plots. “It gives us an idea of how other people will grow our plants and see how they will perform in different environments and different microclimates. Here, we’re a little bit inland, so it’s warmer. We have pretty heavy clay soil. A Salinas test plot where we trial is cooler, foggier and different soil. We also trial the is almost pure sand that the plants are growing in. It’s also a nice and cool climate. We want the most information and data we can collect.”

As the trials reach stages two through four, researchers collect flavor data and shelf-life data, in addition to yield. “For seedlings it’s only our personal opinions, and how things taste. Once it reaches stage two, we start getting public opinion on flavor, and more yield data.

“This year we have two varieties out on the growers’ field,” Edmondson said. “We’re looking for so many different traits in these plants. We want good flavor, obviously. We want nice appearance in the berries. We want them to last long for the consumers, be easy to grow for the growers and easy to harvest for the harvesters. So no giant plants, with big, bushy leaves everywhere. We want it to be as efficient as possible at every level. In the nursery, if they don’t produce runners in order to vegetatively propagate, then the nursery isn’t great fans of these either, because they have to produce thousands and thousands of these per variety. It takes more acres on their end, so we weigh all of these factors in while advancing a variety.”

Driscoll’s strawberry fields were on display during a tour hosted as a prelude to the Organic Produce Summit.

Strawberries are very particular to their climate and the breeding program that they came from. “We’re making crosses here in our greenhouses by hand, based on plants that have done well here,” Edmondson. “We’re focusing on the Watsonville-Salinas district.”

She said Driscoll’s also has a breeding program in Florida that develops berries for Florida. Another develops berries for southern California and Mexico.

“We do cross trials. We will send our selections that do well here to Florida just in case something likes being in Florida. In most cases, things born and bred for the district, do better in their own district.

“When we make our crosses at the greenhouse, they are all done by hand,” she said. “It’s a very tedious and slow job. We have a team of experts who pollinate our berries. It’s all done by hand in the greenhouse because we don’t want the bees to pollinate things for us. In a greenhouse we want to control who the female and male is, because there’s certain traits within each parent that we like. When you see a clamshell, all the little seeds on the outside of the berry are like brothers and sisters. They all have the same parents, but they are all unique as well.”

Edmondson said varieties such as Flamingo and Maverick started “as one tiny seed on the side of a strawberry that we slowly over about six years developed into thousands of plants and lots of data collected.

“Each year we want a diverse mix of varieties in case something happens,” she said. “Some are susceptible to certain diseases than others. If you have a really rainy year, with a lot of phytophthora, you don’t want 90% of your acres susceptible to that, so we try to balance it out. You want different varieties with different timings. You don’t want a ton of fruit in one month, and nothing three months after that.”

— Gary Pullano, managing editor

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