Those who are busily sourcing berries from other parts of the globe right now will know only too well that British consumers are continuing to devour soft fruits with as much excitement as a candy-floss wielding child at a fairground. The category’s burgeoning popularity is indisputably aided by the plethora of mouth-watering varieties available to shoppers but just as demand for berries continues to gain heights all year round, the need to develop even better varieties is also a never-ending carousel ride. Produce Business UK investigates
Getting the balance right
Adam Whitehouse, who leads the Kent-based East Malling Research Strawberry Breeding Club (EMRSBC), and ADAS horticultural consultant Janet Allen, who is working on a five-year (2013-2017) AHDB Horticulture trial on raspberries, are currently researching new and exciting berry breeds could soon be available to fresh produce buyers across the UK.
From a delicious taste that consumers will love, to in-built disease resistance that will help reduce crop losses, there are so many factors under consideration when it comes to breeding a new berry variety that getting it right is a tricky process.
Fortunately, Whitehouse and his team believe they have got the balance right – successfully securing many of the key features the industry requires. According to Whitehouse, the EMRSBC, whose current programme runs until 2023, has already successfully produced some industry favourites, such as Malling Centenary, which, he proudly claims “is taking the industry by storm”.
The Malling Centenary variety
And after a busy summer trialling some promising new strawberry varieties, Whitehouse could well be close to hitting the jackpot once more. This is because there are 32 “promising selections” going through the system at the moment – with six of these being “very close to market”, he reveals.
The six varieties include three June-bearing varieties – EMR1974, EMR2056 and EMR2170 – and three ever-bearing varieties, namely EMR564, EMR590 and EMR639. “These are close to market and there are certainly others that are close behind them,” confirms Whitehouse.
With the help of consortium members Mack Multiples, CPM Retail, Berry Gardens, Meiosis and East Malling Services, these growers will trial the six cultivars on a large scale either next summer (2016) or during the following year.
Six lucky numbers
Whitehouse reveals that the June-bearers EM1974 and EM2056 both boast good resistance to diseases that commonly affect strawberry crops. He explains: “EM1974 was first selected in 2008 and is currently in large-scale grower trials. It will be going onto some grower sites as a main crop next year and it is mildew resistant. We are pretty near to making the decision of whether we want to go forward and commercialise this [variety].”
According to Whitehouse, EM2056 is resistant to both crown rot and wilt, which he admits is: “something we have been trying to achieve for a number of years – the combination of both of these resistances in a selection like this”.
Meanwhile, the early season June-bearer EM2170, which Whitehouse has just decided to trial on a large scale in 2017/18, boasts a particularly large fruit size, as do the ever-bearers EMR564, EMR590 and EMR639.
Because of its “fantastic flavour”, Whitehouse reveals he is especially pleased with the ever-bearer EMR639, which during the trials resulted in a mean fruit size of 22g. “I personally got very excited about these three everbearer selections – every time I have seen them they look fantastic, and [they] certainly have attributes that we have been breeding for all of these years,” he explains. “I would take note of all of these three numbers. The feedback from some of the continental growers has been excellent on some of these varieties.”
Rambunctious about raspberries
As Whitehouse and his team lead their best strawberry varieties in to the next stage of development, several summer-fruiting raspberries are also showing a lot of promise.
ADAS consultant Janet Allen reveals that dozens of raspberry varieties produced by breeders across the globe are currently being tested on an Oxfordshire farm as part of the five-year AHDB Horticulture trial – one of the main aims of which is to find early varieties for the start of the raspberry season. “We have been focusing on an early selection at the moment because it’s what we felt was important [for the industry],” she says.
Allen also reveals that best performing selections out of the several dozen varieties that were trialled this summer include a cultivar bred by the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) in Canada. Code-named BC92-9-15, the plant has short lateral branches at the top, and long laterals at the bottom. “I expect if this variety went into commercial production it would be extremely cheap to pick,” she claims.
A variety named 0534RBI, which has been bred by The James Hutton Institute, also performed very well. “Watch out for this one, it’s really exciting,” Allen exclaims. “It had really high yields of 2.4kg per plant and large fruit – 5.2g on average,” adding that it has a “fabulous flavour”. “We are in the Tulameen range here but with a bit more flavour,” she says. “This one I am going to be looking at with great detail next year.”
A thrilling ride ahead
Given that the AHDB Horticulture raspberry trial will run for several more years (until 2017), it is likely to lead to both better performing plants and even tastier berries for the UK’s fresh produce aisles. Moreover, Whitehouse claims strawberry varieties with in-built resistance to verticillium wilt could be on the cards after an East Malling Research-led project identified more than ten genetic markers that correlate with verticillium wilt resistance. Given the assuring results from both trials to date the berry category looks set for a gripping ride ahead.
Adam Whitehouse and Janet Allen were speaking at the EMR Soft Fruit Day in November 2015.