This Year’s Outlook, New Varieties, and the Future of Florida’s Strawberries
by ERIKA ALDRICH
Strawberries have been rising in the ranks of Florida crops over the years and have become one of the more prominent crops in The Sunshine State. Consequently, the strawberry outlook for 2018-2019 is shaping up to be a good one, and spells good things for the future of the Florida strawberry industry. Industry experts weigh in on the season’s outlook, the impact of the new Brilliance variety, and what lies ahead for strawberries in Florida.
Outlook for Florida Strawberries
Growers and industry experts alike are looking forward to a good strawberry crop this season, barring any wrenches thrown in the works by Mother Nature. Weather is always a factor in agriculture, especially with strawberries, and last season’s hot-and-then-cold temperatures made for a bit of a bumpy season for 2017-2018.
“It’s doing good right now…everybody’s just really happy this year.” says Jeff Casey, the manager at RG Ranch, a working ranch with a U-Pick strawberry operation. “Radiance always has a little bit of fungus problems, but that’s just part of the variety,” shares Casey.
Around 10,000 acres is estimated growing strawberries in Florida for 2018-2019, and growers and industry leaders alike are optimistic it will be a good season. Much of the season’s success is riding on the shoulders of the Brilliance, a new variety created by scientists with the University of Florida that has certainly lived up to its name.
“This season is the first year of commercial release for Brilliance and has by all measures met or exceeded industry expectations,” says Kenneth Parker, the Executive Director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.
Parker maintained that grower demand for Brilliance was high from the get-go, making for a large volume planting. “Historically, growers may plant five percent of the acreage in a new release,” Parker says. “However, the excitement surrounding the Brilliance variety during the development phase created a strong demand for Brilliance, and in its inaugural year enjoys a record setting 15% of the acreage. It would have had more market share but that is all the planting stock that was available,” he explains.
Casey maintained that a fifth of RG Ranch’s berries are Brilliance, and that they have grown admirably. “Brilliance berries are bigger than the other ones,” Casey listed. “They don’t get the long shapes in the heat. They don’t get a hollow heart like other berries when they get large. And they just taste sweet.” Casey shared that Brilliance berries were perfect for U-Pick because of their red color and sweet flavor.
Building a Brilliant Strawberry
The Brilliance strawberry was created by a UF/IFAS team, including strawberry breeder and geneticist, Vance Whitaker, who works out of the UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC). “Brilliance was selected as a seedling from a 2013 cross, so it took five years from cross to commercial availability, which is about as fast as we can do it,” Whitaker shares. “There are a lot of folks on my team, plus collaborating faculty here at GCREC.”
Brilliance was bred by traditional cross-pollination, which is why it took five years, but it was worth the wait as the variety has many attractive qualities. “Compared to the current main variety, Radiance, it [Brilliance] has better disease resistance, has higher early yield when prices are high and is more efficient to harvest due to an open canopy and long stems,” Whitaker says.
The Genius of Brilliance
One of Brilliance’s main attractions for growers is that it has a higher yield much earlier in the season than current berry varieties. Brilliance has a good yield in November and December, meaning Florida strawberry growers can have berries earlier to market, meeting high consumer demand when supplies are lower, and continue to supply the market through the season’s end around the end of March.
“The growers appreciate the hardiness of the Brilliance plant and earlier marketable yield,” Parker says, echoing Whitaker’s sentiment. In addition to an early yield, brilliance features better disease resistance and withstands the weather better than other current varieties. Additionally, its open canopy and longer stems means harvesting is faster and easier, an issue that comes into play considering the cost and scarcity of labor to pick the strawberries.
There’s a lot of features about Brilliance berries for consumers to love as well, including its glossy appearance for which it was named, and consumers have voiced their approval thus far. “Consumer feedback is off the charts in that the Brilliance strawberries taste good and have a superior shelf life, desirable size, great shape, and that “Buy Me” look with the brilliant appearance that it was named for,” Parker explained. Consumers want strawberries that look good, have a good flavor, and last a long time after purchase. In short, Brilliance strawberries just about have it all. “Compared to the current main variety, Radiance, it [Brilliance] has several quality improvements to shape, firmness, flavor, gloss, shelf life,” Whitaker reiterates.
The Future of Florida Strawberries
As to the future, many are banking on Brilliance to have a major impact on the Florida strawberry industry, and the variety already has. It’s not perfect, however, Whitaker shares. “The flavor is not quite as good as Sweet Sensation® late in the season,” he explains, “so we are encouraging growers to continue growing this variety alongside Brilliance.”
UF/IFAS is committed to the course Brilliance has set, Whitaker added. “Further improvements in quality and early yield are our top priorities.” Parker echoed the sentiment, trusting in UF/IFAS researchers to continue to improve strawberries. “Superior genetics combined with an aggressive breeding program will continue to keep the Florida growers leading the pack with quality strawberries that are second to none. Florida’s family farms have been supplying winter strawberries to northern markets for over 130 years.”