Feb 1, 2023
UF research helps Florida strawberry growers

University of Florida (UF) scientists have been studying how to improve strawberry production and consumption since the early 1950s. The research hasn’t been limited to Florida. It has been globally.

Vance Whitaker is UF/IFAS strawberry breeder. Photo: UF/IFAS

UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS)-developed strawberry varieties grow in more than 50 countries and on every continent except Antarctica. UF provided the fun facts as Florida growers enter the thick of Florida’s strawberry growing season, which runs through April, according to a news release.

To help those who grow the crop, which generates $300 million annually for Florida’s economy, UF/IFAS researchers aim to develop strawberries that fight diseases and pests, but that also taste and smell delicious.

Vance Whitaker, a UF professor of horticultural sciences, and other researchers at the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) have bred many cultivars over the years. Among those are Strawberry Festival, Florida Radiance, Florida Brilliance and Sweet Sensation.

Whitaker’s most recent variety is known as the “pineberry,” aka Florida Pearl 109.’ The berry is white and possesses a sweet flavor with a subtle pineapple aroma.

Brilliance grows on 60% of the state’s strawberry acreage. That’s because the fruit is relatively firm and resists many diseases, said Wael Elwakil, a fruit and vegetable agent for UF/IFAS Extension in Hillsborough County.

UF’s new white pineberry strawberry variety. Photo: UF/IFAS

Sensation is the second most common cultivar because of its savory flavor and size. Growers are increasingly choosing Medallion, a newer variety compared to Brilliance and Sensation, and they’re growing more of it each year, according to the release.

GCREC is in Balm, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Tampa in the heart of Hillsborough County’s farmland. The county produces most of Florida’s 12,000 acres of strawberries, but some of the fruit also grows in Manatee County.

“The Tampa Bay area is ideal for growing strawberries due to its climate, not so far north as to have too many freezes, but not so far south that the autumn is too hot and unsuitable for planting,” Whitaker said in the release.

Strawberry consumption continues to rise in the United States, creating a strong domestic demand for strawberries, he said.

A GCREC fact sheet shows strawberries are rich in vitamin C and low in calories. To keep up with consumer demand for healthier lifestyles, U.S. fresh strawberry production has increased from the past 20 years.

California and Florida lead the nation in strawberry production, growing more than 91% of the crop.

This fall’s weather has hindered strawberry growers, but Elwakil remains optimistic for a “fruitful” season.

“The weather this fall has been particularly challenging for the majority of the strawberry growers in the central and south Florida area,” Elwakil said in the release. Hurricanes Ian and Nicole didn’t help. “The overcast, rainy weather persisted, which is not ideal, and in the middle of all of that, we had two freeze events around Christmas,” he said in the release.

Having said that, “Strawberry plants and our growers are both resilient, so we look forward to a good season,” Elwakil said in the release.


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