New strawberry varieties on the way – tastier, cheaper, better for the planet, UC Davis says

The Royal Royce is one of five new varieties from the Strawberry Breeding Program at the University of California, Davis, that will help farmers manage diseases, control cost and produce plenty of large, robust berries.
The Royal Royce is one of five new varieties from the Strawberry Breeding Program at the University of California, Davis, that will help farmers manage diseases, control cost and produce plenty of large, robust berries. UC Davis

They’ll use less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides – and they will probably be cheaper. The Public Strawberry Breeding Program at UC Davis just announced five new strawberry varieties that will be on the market in the fall and are expected to benefit farmers, sellers and consumers alike.

The UC Davis Program has been around since the 1930s and has created 60 patented varieties of strawberries sold nationwide, according to a news release by UC Davis agricultural and environmental scientist Diane Nelson. The program’s strawberry “pedigrees” have become so common, there’s a good chance you’ve tried them already.

The U.S. is the world’s largest strawberry producer, and more than 90 percent of the nation’s crop grows in the cool fields along California’s coast, the release said. Sixty percent of California strawberries are varieties developed at UC Davis, according to the university.

On Tuesday, the program unveiled five new products that promise to reduce costs, improve environmental sustainability and enhance taste. “These new varieties are intrinsically different from the ones they replace,” said Steve Knapp, professor and Public Strawberry Program director, in the release. “ … We’re seeing higher yields, greater disease resistance and better quality after harvest.”

UC Davis has been experimenting with new breeds for three years, program scientist Glenn Cole said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee. Over the years, Cole and his partners took advantage of the program’s natural diversity of breeds, he said, and combined traditional breeding methods with advanced DNA genotyping techniques to identify and select each breed’s best traits.

Cole said the team has been working hard to perfect the balance of sugar and acid in their strawberries. “They look good and people want to buy them … but there’s also a much bigger emphasis on the consumer’s sensory expectations,” Cole said. “We’ve currently got academic studies looking at a lot of genetic resources to (enhance) aroma.”

The new breeds also have enhanced genetic resistance to common strawberry diseases, such as soil-borne pathogens. “Pesticides and fumigants used to control some of the diseases and pests that were problematic for strawberries, but EPA – the Environmental Protection Agency – doesn’t allow people to use (some of them) any more,” Cole said. “And of course there’s more people that are going to organic culture, so having disease-resistant cultivars for organic growing is also critical.”

Each variety was created with a specific purpose and for a specific climate. Two of the varieties – Moxie and Royal Royce – are set to reduce labor costs by up to $5,000 an acre, with a yield increase of 29 percent over their UC Davis predecessors, according to the release. They sprout fewer plant runners, stems that develop into roots and require additional labor because they must be constantly cut back, according to Cole. He said this will likely reduce the price consumers pay as well.

The five varieties the program will release cover nearly every season. Moxie, Royal Royce and a third breed, Valiant, thrive in warm summer climates, while Victor and Warrior grow best along the coast in colder temperatures. However, Cole said the team is still working to ensure that large, flavorful and firm strawberries are available year-round.

He said the program plans to make two more varieties available by 2020 to cover the traditionally strawberry-free months from September through January. Another less tasty UC variety named Portola used to cover that growing segment, according to Cole, but the team thinks it’s time to find a replacement.

“So we’re looking at a targeted release of something that tastes better, “ Cole said. “It’s exciting, and It’s been a few years since the last releases, and we think that these new varieties will address some of the needs that growers have and affect the industry.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.