U.S. researchers to develop first organic strawberry varieties

by Sustainable Food News 

October 18, 2017

Scientists at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) have launched a research project that aims to develop the first varieties of strawberries specifically designed for U.S. organic agriculture.

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The United States is the world’s leading producer of strawberries, producing more than three billion pounds valued at $2.9 billion in 2014, according to the USDA.

The organic strawberry varieties will be developed for optimal production using an advanced breeding method called marker-assisted breeding, which allows scientists to conduct traditional cross-hybridization and trait-based selection using genetic testing.

“No strawberry varieties yet have been developed specifically for organic agriculture in the United States, and only one company located in Europe offers any strawberry seed-propagated varieties specifically for organic production,” said Lise Mahoney, who is leading the three-year project at UNH's New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. “This project will contribute to advances in strawberry breeding for organic agriculture and will advance knowledge of the genetic basis for trait variation, inbreeding depression, and hybrid vigor in strawberry.”

“We want to provide strawberry growers with regionally adapted, seed-propagated strawberry varieties that are suitable for organic agriculture and are pleasing to consumers. Organically certifiable, seed-propagated varieties provide an attractive and environmentally friendly alternative to the vegetatively propagated varieties currently relied upon by the strawberry industry,” Mahoney said.

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The research project has received support from Driscoll’s Berries, Inc., a leading developer and producer of organic strawberries and other berries, and High Mowing Organic Seeds, a leading developer and producer of organic seeds.

“Organic berry production makes upwell over 10 percent of the Driscoll's berry portfolio making Driscoll's one of the largest providers of organic berries in the United States. And organic strawberries are one of the fastest growing segments within our business,” said Richard Harrison, vice president of global variety development for Driscoll’s. "We see strong potential for this market well into the future. A seed-propagated strawberry variety would provide an excellent way to deliver clean plant material to growers at an affordable price."

“It is refreshing to witness research thinking outside the box with respect to strawberry varietal development and propagation method,” said Tom Stearns, founder and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. "Seed varieties in strawberry, particularly those selected in an organic environment, would provide a valuable and needed option to vegetatively propagated plants. Strawberry hybrid seed varieties and furthermore, seeds that are bred in an organic environment, would open an intriguing new market for us."

Experiment station researchers plan to produce both day-neutral and short-day flowering strawberry varieties for organic agriculture that can be propagated by seed rather than by the conventional runner plant approach. According to Mahoney, strawberries typically are propagated vegetatively from runners and purchased by growers as bare-root plants. However, this bare-root production method presents major problems in regards to organic agriculture.

First, the process of generating the bare-root plants requires chemical inputs to avoid transmission of diseases. Second, the grower planting schedule is dictated by the bare-root supplier and therefore planting stock availability is seasonally limited according to the purchaser's climatic region.


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