Over the past couple of decades, the strawberries Florida grows have improved quite a bit, Whitaker thinks. That provides the base for his breeding program.

“Sweet Charlie, the first big University of Florida variety, was introduced in 1992. Festival came along in 2000 and was really a game changer; within a few years, it was the dominant variety and still has about 50 percent of the crop. Now a new variety, Radiance, has taken off and is doing well. This year, we have another one, Winterstar, that growers are definitely interested in growing.”

Winterstar, a 2005 selection initially released in 2011, deserves the attention it has recently been getting, he says. A cross between Radiance and Earlibrite, with large, deep red fruit, some think it sweeter than either of its parents.

“It’s one of our notable cultivars. The University of Florida has three cultivars out for this season, which is a reflection of the work done by the former breeders in this program,” Whitaker says.

“Don’t get me wrong. I think Festival and Radiance are decent tasting, very good strawberries. Some of the newer varieties coming along did better in group taste tests, where the testers used clickers. The two selections coming behind the released varieties far and away got more votes for taste.”

Taste, simple to recognize, gets scientifically complex. Food scientists’ work often focuses on taste. A strawberry releases 300 volatile chemical compounds that the human nose can sense, and some of these affect flavor either positively or negatively.

“Breeders can’t ignore volatiles,” he says. “We have to figure out which volatiles are affecting the sweetness.”

Developing new varieties based on taste requires precise work by the breeder. “It’s time-consuming; it’s tough,” Whitaker says. “There are no short cuts.”

He says he eats his share of strawberries, but taste panel opinions are more critical in picking winners among all the varietal options in the lab and field.

Flavor changes constantly during the season, depending on environmental factors, making his job even trickier.

“In this area, on average, soluble solids decline by half from January to March,” he says. “That explains why taste can be pretty good at the beginning of the season and not so good later in the season. The hotter the average temperatures, the lower the soluble solids. When it gets hot as we go into spring, there’s a 50 percent drop in sugars in the berry. That affects flavor.”

With that in mind, he tries to identify strawberry lines that do well in a wide temperature range.

“It’s possible to select for a high average and for flavor to be stable. I try to steer away from selections that react a lot to the environment. I want the Florida strawberry grower to keep the buyer with him throughout the season, rather than have the buyer switch to California berries because of flavor. The important thing is the stability of sugars as the season goes along.”