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Florida strawberry growers embrace Winterstar, a sweet newcomer

WIMAUMA — Like a promising amateur challenging the tried-and-true champs, a new strawberry variety has entered the ring.

Meet "Winterstar."

It's the latest release from researchers at the University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center in Wimauma. Experts predict it will bring a sweeter, early blossoming fruit to farmers' fields.

"It's gone through enough testing that it's a done deal," said assistant professor Vance Whitaker, a strawberry breeder and geneticist at the center. "It's just picking up steam this year."

The plant has already overcome daunting odds: New breeds emerge every year. Few make it to the big time.

Researchers try new combinations with the hopes of inventing a wonder berry, a perfect fruit that encompasses every desirable trait.

There are many possibilities to lust over. Florida farmers want a plant that can withstand adverse weather and prosper during short winter days. They want one that produces steady yields throughout the entire winter season. They want one that pops out fruit firm enough to ship, fruit that will last from the fields to the stores to refrigerators.

Farmers typically plant a diverse array, with both early bloomers and late bloomers to keep berries coming from November through March.

The last one to gain fame was the 2009 Florida Radiance. Before that, the 2000 variety, Strawberry Festival, rocketed to stardom — and has held the top spot ever since.

New varieties win intellectual property rights for UF, a leading strawberry research organization. But the developments have an even broader influence, advancing the state's agricultural asset to compete against California's expanding berry production.

Dominating the winter market, Florida's strawberry industry is worth $800 million to $900 million annually to the state, according to Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

"It's like having three Super Bowls every year," he said.

And the industry continues to expand, with more planted acres, better growing technology and, of course, new varieties to increase production and woo consumers.

Winterstar, trademarked, with patent pending, graduated last year from limited testing among nine growers to this year's large-scale trial among about 20 farmers.

"As a commercial grower, you have different things you observe or things you're looking for in a strawberry," said strawberry grower Ronnie Young of Three Star Farms in Dover. "By doing this, it gives us some input into what's going on."

Young is among the nine farmers who conduct the first tests of selected breeds for the research center. The farmers, called cooperators, aren't told many details of the plants but put down a few rows to observe growth and interpret its potential for commercial production.

If they pass muster, test berries may make it into the plastic clamshells sold in grocery stores. Not all labels advertise variety names, so perhaps without even knowing it, some Floridians may have already savored a Winterstar berry.

Millions of Winterstar plants will leave nurseries for commercial farming next year, UF's Whitaker said.

A cross between the popular Radiance and a variety called Earlibrite, Winterstar bears some resemblance to its parent plants. Its plump fruits come in early yields, Whitaker said, but it also sports a brighter red color that keeps it from looking overripe.

With similar attributes, this latest variety will most likely compete against Radiance for farmers' acreage. Consumers may cheer for Winterstar's oh-so-slightly sweeter taste. Growers may appreciate the hardier plants.

But Winterstar is not necessarily expected to unseat the reigning champion of winter berries: Farmers favor the top crop, Strawberry Festival, for its large fruit and plentiful harvests.

Festival corners about 50 percent of the winter strawberry market, according to Campbell, the local strawberry expert. Radiance, the disease-resistant early bloomer, accounts for about 25 to 30 percent of production.

"Winterstar is right behind Radiance," Campbell said. "With a little hope, Winterstar may have some better attributes than Radiance. But Radiance is already well accepted."

If Winterstar can prove its worth, it could hold its own in the market for about 10 years, he said.

Or until the next big thing comes along.

"You're always looking for something better," Campbell said.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Florida strawberry growers embrace Winterstar, a sweet newcomer 12/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 11:20pm]
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