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In Search Of Perfection

A strawberry that looks great, tastes delicious and travels beautifully? They're working on it.

March 16, 2005|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Kirk Larson knows that somewhere among the more than 25,000 plants he inspects every week, the next great strawberry may be waiting to be discovered.

A plant breeder for the University of California, he helps run a program that has produced some of the most delicious berries offered at local farmers markets -- Gaviotas, Seascapes and Chandlers. And it has also succeeded in extending the fruit's season from the couple of months nature traditionally allotted to nearly all year-round.

Now the trick is finding a strawberry that will do both.

Though he doesn't know when this hero will turn up -- maybe this year or maybe five or six years from now -- he does know many of the things it will have to do. It will have to be a tough plant, resistant to the many pests that plague the crop. The fruit will be firm enough that you can ship it to New York and have it arrive looking just the same as the day it was picked in Oxnard.

The plant will pop out berries like a little fruit factory. And it will do so steadily over an entire yearlong growing cycle, regardless of the season or the weather. These days, having plants that produce during January and February's rains is not a bonus but a requirement.

The strawberries will be beautiful to look at, bright red and perfectly conical in shape. They will be huge, each one weighing about an ounce. And they will appear at the end of long stems, well free of the plant's leaves so they will be easy to pick.

The flavor? Well, the flavor should be good, too, but that's less crucial, from Larson's point of view. The history of strawberry breeding is littered with great-tasting berries that are no longer popular. The most recent example is the Chandler.

"The fruit looked great and tasted good, but if you shipped it to New York, when the buyer opened the box, the fruit was all leaking out the bottom -- that's an automatic rejection," Larson says.

"You've paid all that money to grow the fruit, pack it and ship it, and it's a total loss. That only has to happen a couple of times before you get real tired of it."

That may sound hard-nosed, but it is this philosophy that since World War II has transformed what was once a tender icon of spring into one of the marvels of modern industrial agriculture. Since 1950, California strawberry growers have increased their production more than twentyfold, from 81 million to about 1.67 billion pounds.

A growth industry

Last year, strawberries earned more than $1 billion and were the fourth most profitable fruit or vegetable grown in California, behind only grapes, lettuce and almonds. The state now produces more than 85% of all the strawberries grown in this country and more than 20% of all the strawberries grown in the world.

At the root of this transformation have been the breeding program's strawberry breeders. Larson, working out of the South Coast Research and Extension Center at Irvine, and his partner Doug Shaw, who operates out of Davis, are the newest generation.

The two are split because growers in different areas of the state have different demands, both aimed at cashing in on the lucrative off-season market. There is far more money to be made selling strawberries when nobody else has them than trying to peddle them when the stores are glutted. The same flat of strawberries that sells for $6 to $8 in June can fetch a farmer $30 and more in December or January.

In Southern California, farmers prize "short-day" varieties that will ripen early. In the north, they prefer "day neutral" berries that will produce well past the traditional end of the season.

Put together, the UC varieties account for almost two-thirds of all the berries grown in the state. Overseas, their share is even higher. Roughly 90% of the strawberries grown in Spain, the second-largest producer, come from University of California varieties, and these same varieties are similarly influential in strawberry fields from Mexico to Morocco.

In addition to the University of California program -- which is partially funded by growers through the California Strawberry Commission -- there are two major private strawberry breeding programs in the state, managed by shippers Driscoll's Inc. and Well-Pict Inc. These proprietary varieties make up about one-third of the California harvest.

If ever there was a fruit that seemed designed to frustrate industrial agriculture, it is the strawberry. From the tips of its berries to the ends of its roots, it is the essence of vulnerability.

Unlike most fruits, strawberries wear their seeds on the outside of their flesh rather than the inside; there is neither skin nor peel to protect the sweet meat from the predations of climate and pest. This fragility is only amplified after the fruit has been picked, as the teeniest nick or cut can become an open doorway for the fungi that lead to rapid decay.

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