Scientists, farmers make progress in stretching strawberry growing season
By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó In a good year, strawberry lovers have about eight weeks to buy fruit grown in Rowan County soil.
The scramble begins in April to pick, eat and freeze succulent local berries before the short growing season ends in June. After that, consumers must settle for less desirable strawberries grown in California, Florida or Mexico.
Although North Carolina’s climate and soil are much different from those in California and Florida, growers here must use strawberry plants developed decades ago for conditions in those faraway places.
The short season and inadequate varieties put North Carolina strawberry growers at a disadvantage.
“We’ve been handicapped here for years,” said Doug Patterson, who grows strawberries on his family farm in Rowan County.
That could be about to change.
Already, scientists are growing and picking Rowan County strawberries in the dead of winter, luscious red fruit thriving under high tunnels at the Piedmont Research Station just west of Salisbury.
Local berries grown under high tunnels could be in grocery stores next winter.
And within a few years, Dr. Jeremy Pattison, a new scientist at the N.C. Research Campus dedicated to strawberry breeding and genetics, hopes to unveil a designer strawberry plant developed specifically for North Carolina.
“This is a big deal,” said Debby Wechsler, executive secretary for the N.C. Strawberry Association. “This shows the state is taking strawberries seriously.”
About 200 North Carolina farms grow strawberries on a total of about 1,800 acres, producing less than 2 percent of the berries in the United States, Wechsler said.
A longer growing season and varieties that resist disease, withstand cold and taste better could give farmers a new high-value crop and North Carolina a bigger piece of the nation’s strawberry pie.
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When N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute hired Pattison five months ago to work in Kannapolis, North Carolina became the third state after California and Florida to have a full-time strawberry breeder serving the public.
The N.C. Strawberry Association helped recruit Pattison, and members voted to fund his research for five years at $10,000 a year.
“Everybody in the state is tickled to death that he is here,” said Patterson, who serves on the association board of directors. “This is something we’ve wanted for 20 years.”
Pattison inherited a strawberry program started years ago by Dr. Jim Ballington of N.C. State. While Ballington breeds many kinds of small fruit, Pattison will breed only strawberries.
By collaborating with other universities at the Research Campus and using extremely sensitive instruments to see deep inside the plant, Pattison hopes to knock a few years off the decade it usually takes to develop a new variety.
“There is an amazing amount of new technology that we can use and apply in the lab to deliver new varieties to the industry,” Pattison said. “We want to provide our growers with agricultural competitiveness.”
Growing strawberries for months, instead of weeks, and using plants designed at the Research Campus and tested in Rowan County will give North Carolina farmers a leg up on Florida, which has about 11 percent of the nationwide market, and behemoth California, with nearly 85 percent.
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In the past, plant breeders relied mostly on observation to choose the best specimens to propagate.
Now, they can see what’s going on inside the plant at a molecular level.
Pattison will work closely with Dr. Allan Brown, the new applied molecular geneticist at N.C. State’s institute in Kannapolis.
“He can explore the genome of the plant and try to identify genes of interest,” Pattison said. “He’s looking at the DNA and I’m looking in the field, and we draw correlations about certain portions of the genome.”
Rather than years of trial and error in the field, finding genetic markers in the lab for traits like disease resistance could give scientists a shortcut as they develop new varieties.
Researchers also can look for genes that make strawberries more nutritious or help fight disease.
“This is a real unique opportunity to find genes that control for anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory compounds, and see if we can’t select for gene variances that would result in increased production of these compounds,” Pattison said.
In other words, super-strawberries.
Growers here need any advantage they can get, Patterson said.
“We need some success stories, some niche,” he said.
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Pattison will join other N.C. State researchers, including small fruits specialist Dr. Barclay Poling, in developing new varieties. They will test them at state-run research stations across North Carolina like the one near Salisbury.
If the plant proves itself to scientists, they will give it to selected growers for further testing in the field.
With feedback from growers, scientists will commercialize the variety and choose a nursery that will have exclusive rights to propagate the new plant.
Growers will buy the variety from a nursery.
N.C. State would apply for a patent on the new plant and collect royalties each time it’s sold.
“That gets kicked back to the program,” Pattison said. “It’s a mechanism to generate funding, and it only adds a fraction of the cost to individual plant sales.”
Another N.C. State program in Kannapolis called Value-Added and Alternative Agriculture will help educate growers about the new variety, Pattison said.
Dr. Blake Brown, who earned a national reputation for structuring the federal tobacco buyout, started his program in 2006 and moved it to Kannapolis last year. His staff specializes in extension, or outreach to farmers, as well as food safety.
After years of development and trials, eventually scientists and a commercial partner could seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to make a label claim, or a proclamation that North Carolina strawberries help fight certain diseases or give specific health benefits.
To prove it, N.C. State would collaborate with one of the nutrition programs at the Research Campus, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro or N.C. Central University.
“They would look at how foods affect the metabolic profiles in the human body,” Pattison said.
Every step of this process, from developing a new plant to testing it in humans, can occur at the Research Campus. It could change the way people eat.
“That’s what been lacking,” Pattison said. “We can all say that fruits and vegetables are good for us. But now we have the people and the technology to quantify that.”
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