Vance Whitaker pauses to finger runners of strawberry plants in the greenhouse housing the lines he uses to make the crosses necessary to turn out new varieties.

“The Florida strawberry variety situation is changing a little bit,” says the University of Florida’s strawberry breeder at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center at Baum.

He may look like an eager, fresh-faced high schooler working on a science project, but Whitaker has already been on the job three years.

Looking at the 378 strawberry selections currently in the greenhouse, change seems distinctly possible. Throw in the 10,000 seedlings he will evaluate this season, and it’s reasonable to think that one or two, at least, could someday be widely grown on Florida strawberry farms. These varieties in the pipeline toward release could be significantly different from those now being grown in the state.

Since the last few strawberry varieties released in Florida show relatively good disease resistance, fine shape and shipping characteristics, Whitaker can look at other things, like flavor.

“Because my predecessors made so much progress, I have more freedom to focus on flavor,” he says. “Most of the material I evaluate already has good shape and some disease resistance. This gives me freedom as a breeder to focus on other things.

“”I see that Florida is going to have to have a competitive edge with Mexican imports. If we ask what’s going to be the quality that gives Florida a bump in the marketplace, flavor is the obvious thing.”

Grower management will remain the key to producing good strawberries for the market. Better flavor, though, could differentiate them from competitors. Growers already realize that.

“In a recent survey, growers consistently put flavor in the top two traits they valued,” Whitaker says. “They have undergone a shift in their trait priorities, which was unexpected. I would have thought firmness, size, shape and shipping would be more important to them. It really surprised me.”

Consumers already know strawberries are good for them, so he questions whether breeding for incremental increases in attributes like antioxidants would be worthwhile.

“Instead of making it 10 percent more healthy, why not work to get a better-tasting berry? Then people might eat twice as many of them. I see improved flavor as a way to promote health, a way to get people to eat the amount of fruits they should be eating. I think the next frontier in strawberries is to add better flavor to the appearance, which is already good.”