By STEVE BROWN
PUYALLUP, Wash. -- Strawberries of many sizes, shapes, colors -- and levels of sweetness -- are the focus of research at a farm east of Puyallup.
Patrick Moore, a small fruit breeder and geneticist for Washington State University Extension, said he's working with 50 experimental cultivars this year. Variety selection is a long process, though.
"In the 25 years I've been here, we've released three," he said.
Finding varieties best suited for commercial growers in the Pacific Northwest is a team effort. Moore shares his work with colleagues in Oregon and British Columbia.
Chad Finn, a breeder for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Corvallis, Ore., described the pedigree for one promising variety, Charm, which was released in 2012.
Moore sent some seedlings to Finn, who made the selections. Finn also tested some seedlings from Chaim Kempler, recently retired from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Agassiz, B.C. Finn crossed that material with Moore's material, grew some seedlings and eventually selected Charm.
Though its tender skin makes it an unlikely candidate for fresh market, Finn said, "Charm stood up to everything we threw at it."
Moore estimated the variety could yield up to 7 tons an acre.
Growing out the varieties helps the researchers make crop estimates, as well as determine the plant's hardiness and the berries' flavor, color, picking efficiency and size.
"Everyone wants Tillamook size, about 20 grams or more, because it's easier to pick," Finn said.
Another objective is to develop disease tolerance and resistance. Moore said researchers use fungicide because they lost 50 percent of their plants to rot the one year that they tried growing without it.
Color can be deceptive, Moore said. One variety, Cabot, is white around the calyx and doesn't fit the Pacific Northwest expectation of fresh-market berries -- "until they taste it," berry farmer Tim Spooner said.
Organic growers have asked breeders for a variety suited to their management system.
Working with an organic farmer in Chimacum on the Olympic Peninsula, horticulturist Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt tested 10 day-neutral varieties, which produce throughout the summer. Selection was difficult, she said, because the plants produce only a little at a time.
Plantings of five cultivars were replicated in Chimacum, Tacoma and nearby Orting. The findings:
* Albion is highly rated for flavor, has acceptable size and firmness, "but a little bit finicky in organic management," Hoashi-Erhardt said.
* San Andreas is also highly rated for flavor and is somewhat more durable than Albion. Color is a light red, which may prove problematic.
* Aromas is the most productive, vigorous and durable of the five cultivars, but is rated lowest for flavor.
* Seascape is lower-yielding than Aromas and San Andreas, but is rated high for flavor, size and color.
* Monterey is earlier to bloom than the other day-neutrals, but doesn't have great flavor.