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Florida Researchers Aim To Breed Better Blueberries

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Pictured above is the Sweetcrisp blueberry. The goal for the researchers was to identify components in 19 different variations that not only people liked, but those that would make for stable production across different environments. Photo courtesy of James Olmstead.

Researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences are trying to hone in on qualities that will create tastier and sturdier blueberries.

The findings of the three-year study were posted on PLOS One, a journal that publishes scientific and medical research. As a result of the study, researchers have targeted specific breeding traits to improve blueberries.

The researchers tested 19 different variations of blueberries in 30 panels, in which 217 people ranked them blindly based on overall liking, texture, sweetness, sourness and flavor intensity.

James Olmstead, an associate professor with UF’s Horticultural Sciences Department that led the experiment, explained how breeding for flavor is challenging because everyone has different tastes.

“The ideal for me as a plant breeder is to be able to release a variety to growers and say ‘it’s going to perform the same no matter where you plant it and what environment you plant it in,’” he said.

Olmstead said another issue is that the same variety of berry can taste different based on its environment.

To solve these issues, the researchers wanted to find compounds within each variation of blueberry that people not only liked, but produced consistent results when grown in different environments, he said.

Olmstead explained that two different data sets were developed — one resulting from the tastings and the other from an analysis of the genetic composition of each type of blueberry.

Although the Scintilla variety earned the highest overall score by the panel members, Olmstead stressed that they weren’t just trying to determine what blueberry people liked, but the genetic components that would provide for consistency.

This sought-out consistency can be an issue, as Florida poses several challenges to blueberry production.

Though short winters may be seen as an advantage to many industries in Florida, Olmstead explained that cold temperatures are important for blueberry production.

“Blueberries need that cold temperature during the winter to produce a full crop the following spring,” he said.

Despite weather-related challenges, Olmstead said that the Southern Highbush, Florida’s main variety of blueberry, was developed to tolerate the very short winter periods.

John Ibasfalean, owner of John’s Blueberries in Lake Butler, said that sporadic Florida weather can wreak havoc because blueberries need several hours of cold between each season. Without a good freeze, the output won’t be as plentiful.

“They’re very temperamental,” Ibasfalean said.

Jeff Williamson, who is on the board of directors for the Florida Blueberry Growers Asssociation, said that rain can also have a negative impact because it can cause berries to burst.

Florida’s sunny weather during blueberry season, which generally lasts from March to May, makes for good harvesting. As a result, producers can take advantage, Williamson said.

“Our prices can be significantly higher than other North American production areas,” he said.

“There’s been an increased awareness of the nutritional value of blueberries,” Williamson explained. As a result, that has increased demand and consumption of blueberries.

Olmstead said Florida features a competitive advantage because the state is able to produce blueberries at a time when many areas cannot. This leads to an early market window in which Florida can almost exclusively dominate the blueberry market.

Florida is one of 10 states that account for 98 percent of U.S. blueberry production.

Olmstead said his long-term goal is to help Florida stay competitive.

“When there are different places in the world producing blueberries at the same time, I would like for our growers to be able to say ‘We’re producing the best tasting blueberries that you can get at this time,’” he said.

He said he plans to keep selecting for favorable traits and breeding repeatedly to make the blueberries even better.

“It’s a continual process, and this was just new information that was feeding in to helping me better select what we want to keep and test in larger areas,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Justin Ross

Justin is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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