As the sun peeks above the horizon, farmworkers push the delicate roots of spindly strawberry plants into the ground at Three Star Farms. They look like any other strawberry plant, but these — the new Florida Radiance variety — represent eight years of study at a University of Florida research center in Wimauma. That's where scientists develop new types of strawberries under the guidance of horticulturist Craig Chandler, the man responsible for most of the strawberries found in Florida supermarkets. For the first time since 2005, farmers will plant a new variety on a substantial number of acres in Florida — about 300 — most in eastern Hillsborough County, the self-proclaimed "winter strawberry capital of the world."
Ronnie Young, owner of Three Star Farms in Dover, is planting about 25 acres of the Florida Radiance. For him, it's mostly about timing.
In Florida's strawberry industry, everything depends on the winter berries, which are ready in December and bring in nearly five times the profits of berries harvested in March, when Florida competes against California for market share.
Although California wins by a landslide in total strawberry yield, Florida constantly fights for a bigger share of the November through February market. And in this battle, the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma is Central Command, and Chandler is Gen. David Petraeus.
Chandler has headed the strawberry breeding program since 1987. He is responsible for eight varieties, including the popular Strawberry Festival, the one found in most grocery stores.
The stakes are high, so the horticulturists have lofty standards. Only about one in 30,000 new varieties the scientists create actually makes it to market.
"You don't build a reputation by releasing (just) anything," said assistant professor Vance Whitaker, who will take over Chandler's job when he scales back his hours in June.
They're looking for beautiful, sweet varieties of strawberries that ship well, are resistant to disease and produce early in the season. Florida Radiance fits this bill.
It's what buyers want, Young said, and farmers grow what sells.
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Chandler is largely responsible for the growth of Florida's strawberry industry. Before he joined the strawberry breeding program, local farmers grew a lot of California varieties. Many didn't do so well in Florida's climate, and the production window was short.
In particular, Chandler's Strawberry Festival berry helped the industry because it's hardy and travels well. Farmers were able to start shipping to the Northeast and Canada, he said.
As a result, strawberry acreage increased. In the 1980s, there were about 3,000 acres of strawberry fields in Florida. Now there are about 8,000, most in eastern Hillsborough County.
The growth has not only had an economic impact on farmers, but on the county, said Stephen Gran, the director of Hills- borough's Agriculture Industry Development program.
Florida's farmers produced $249 million worth of berries in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and about 90 percent of the state's strawberries are grown in the Plant City area.
Developing a new breed is complicated, but with the patience of a professor, Chandler simplifies it as he stands in front of a large acrylic painting of the process in the research center's lobby.
The breeding process starts when a technician rubs the pollen from one flower on the receptacle of a female flower.
In the case of the Florida Radiance, one parent was the Winter Dawn, which produces fruit early in the season, and the other was FL 99-35, a not-yet-released variety that produces firm, attractive fruit.
After the fruit from the cross develops, Chandler explains, scientists plant the seeds. Daughter plants shoot off the parent plant, and the scientists separate them, creating identical plants for more tests.
If the berries are small or few in number, they're plowed under. The horticulturists begin with about 10,000 breeds — one of each — and then reduce the number to a few hundred, then a few dozen with multiple copies. They take some plants to growers for trials, and they test the finalists extensively.
Volunteers on taste panels record their perceptions, and scientists conduct tests in the Wimauma center's lab and at a U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Winter Haven.
One meter tests the intensity of the berry's color. They aim for a not-too-deep red because consumers often assume that maroon means the fruit is overripe. Another instrument records the balance of sugar and acid, which lends to either a sweet or tart flavor. A pointy penetrometer applies force to the skin to measure the force necessary to puncture the fruit, which is important information for shipping purposes. And a gas chromatograph measures the chemicals that make up the aroma of the berry, the property that affects consumers' perception of taste.
When researchers find a berry that's satisfactory on all counts and determine it's significantly different from the varieties already on the market, Chandler takes it before the Cultivar Release Committee, made up of UF Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences officials.
On April 28, 2008, the group approved the Florida Radiance.
It also approved the Florida Elyana, which is being grown in a much smaller quantity in Florida. It produces large, flavorful fruits. The target market for the berry is Spain, where farmers grow the plants in tunnels or greenhouses. The berry would not fare well in Florida because it doesn't hold up well in rain.
Ronnie Young's Radiance berries should hit the stores in December, he said. And the earliest fruits will most likely arrive by the end of November, providing his family with their annual tradition.
"We'll have strawberry shortcake for Thanksgiving," he said.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvander[email protected] or (813) 661-2443.