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• Looking at the 378 strawberry selections currently in the greenhouse, change seems distinctly possible.
• Throw in the 10,000 seedlings Vance Whitaker 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.
New strawberry varieties in the pipeline promise better flavor while retaining the disease resistance of currently used cultivars, says Vance Whitaker, University of Florida plant breeder at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center.
Grants very helpful
“This year, they gave over $400,000 in grants to work on strawberries,” Whitaker says. “The University of Florida got a lot of it. It’s very helpful. The international royalties far exceed domestic, though. Our varieties are now sold in 42 countries. Ekland Marketing Company of California handles international licensees and royalty collection outside the U.S. and Canada.”
Ekland deals with the university’s Fortuna, Festival, Sweet Charlie, Winter Dawn and Earlibrite varieties.
“Our varieties are being grown in the world’s major production areas,” he says. “Ekland works in concert with the Florida Strawberry Growers Association to make it happen.”
Whitaker, 32 years old, grew up in Oak Ridge, N.C., a small town in an area where tobacco was the major crop. His father was a land appraiser and lender for the Farm Credit Service. They lived on 20 acres outside town and Whitaker developed a love for gardening and landscaping.
He attended North Carolina State University and concentrated on ornamental horticulture, then got a Masters and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, where he focused on disease resistance in roses.
Roses and strawberries are related, members of the same family, and that led him to befriend those in the strawberry industry, which led to the University of Florida job.
“I’ve been blessed to get to do a job like this,” he says.. “It’s fun, and I’m doing something worthwhile — what more could anybody ask?”
Whitaker thinks the university could release a new strawberry variety, or possibly even two, in 2013.
“We’ll have a good idea what the top two are in February. We’ll look at grower trials, then go ahead and release them. We’ve got other material in the pipeline coming along behind these.
“When you consider how many seedlings we grow, for every success in strawberry breeding there are 15,000 to 20,000 failures. Is it firm enough? Is the flavor good enough? If there’s one thing wrong with a seedling, it goes on the trash heap.
“If it’s no better than the current one being grown, that may be enough to throw it out — as much as that hurts.”