Berry high tech: Driscoll's works on the berries of the future

On a wall at the Watsonville, California, headquarters of the nearly $US3 billion ($4.07 billion) global berry brand Driscoll's, dozens of little green trucks move about on a large screen with a map of the US.

It's a real-time representation of every truck on the road carrying the company's strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries to customers across the country, with data from each truck — the temperature inside the cargo hold, whether it's stuck in traffic, even whether its doors are open or closed. 

"Our production system is evolving quite dramatically," said Soren Bjorn, executive vice president of Driscoll's of the Americas.

It has to: The world, including California, is not generating more farmland —it's actually losing it, thanks to factors like population growth, pollution, and erosion.

"We have to get more out of the limited resources that we have to serve a larger population," Bjorn explained. 

There are many pieces to any agricultural puzzle — genetics, weather, labourers, soil — but the companies growing our food have only so much control over them. So Driscoll's is drawing on its scientists to build a system whose berries are always delicious, no matter where they're grown or sold. 

It starts with genetics. The company has nine different breeding programs for strawberries in the US and Europe and 18 commercial varieties of the fruit in North America alone.

Some breeds are sweeter, others juicier. Some are especially good for organic farming. Some, such as the white ones that might look unripe to Americans, are favourites in other parts of the world, such as Hong Kong.

Breeding is also important for maintaining the more mundane traits, such as being able to withstand a cross-country truck ride. 

Growing berries of any kind is complicated. There are a lot of inputs —among them water, fertilisers, labour to harvest the plants, and such pesticides as herbicides and fungicides to kill off pests and disease. Getting these inputs wrong can hurt the crops, the environment, or both.

Driscoll's is starting to use a technique called substrate farming, in which berries are grown in coconut husk pots instead of dirt in the ground, to reduce each of these inputs.

Read more: www.afr.com.

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