AURORA, ORE. — No one will ever mistake Oregon’s minuscule strawberry production for California’s $1.8 billion crop, but for a couple weeks in early summer the state’s berries take center stage to bask in the lore of their supreme flavor.
Hoods, anyone? Case closed, strawberry purists would argue. No hard, white-centered, flavorless pretenders from out of state allowed.
At a strawberry field day earlier this month, growers got a glimpse of some new cultivars that could provide options in what USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates is a $9 million annual agricultural niche in Oregon.
Chad Finn, a USDA berry breeder who works closely with Oregon State University in Corvallis, said Charm and Sweet Sunrise are early, high-quality, June-bearing berries that will be good for processing.
Charm is sweet enough that it could be used in ice cream like Hoods, which have been around since 1965. “It’s got that kind of quality,” Finn said.
It has a tender skin and Finn said he’s always described it as a processing berry, but at farmers’ markets in Corvallis it’s been one of the predominant varieties brought in for sale, he said.
Charm also is a tough, vigorous plant and produces a thick canopy, Finn said. There was concern the canopy was so thick that pickers wouldn’t be able to get at berries efficiently, but anecdotal feedback from picking crew bosses indicate it hasn’t been a problem, he said.
Because of its vigorous nature and reliably high yield, Finn said Charm might be suited for organic production. “If I was an organic guy I would start experimenting,” he said.
Sweet Sunrise, meanwhile, is a full flavor berry, one of the best, Finn said. It’s a bit tart, but a little sugar allows the flavor to come through, he said. It’s a more open plant than Charm, making it easy to pick.
Both cultivars appear to be ones that will hold up longer in the field, providing three years of harvest compared to two years or even one for Tillamook, Totem or Hood strawberries, Finn said.
Another relatively new cultivar, Mary’s Peak, also is a June-bearing berry, with a big canopy and large fruit, he said.
Bringing new strawberry cultivars to commercial production is a slow motion process. Sweet Sunrise was selected in 2000 and Charm in 2001 from crosses made two years earlier in each case. Years of trials and testing are necessary, then the plants have to be reproduced in large numbers by commercial nurseries, which can slow down the process, Finn said. U.S. plant patent applications are pending on both.
Beyond size, flavor and plant vigor, another key factor in strawberry production is the availability of labor. If berries ripen too early in the season, professional picking crews may not be on hand to harvest them, Finn said. If they are too late, crews may have moved on to blueberries, which are easier to pick.
Of Oregon’s strawberry production, roughly one-third goes into ice cream, one-third is sold fresh market, and perhaps one-third is flash frozen and bagged for store sale, Finn estimated.
Sweet Sunrise and Charm were developed by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in cooperation with the research and experiment arms of the ag schools at OSU and Washington State University. The field day presentation was at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center near Aurora.