As thousands of people come to Plant City for the annual Florida Strawberry Festival this month, many will eat various types of the fruit. They may be surprised to learn that University of Florida scientists toil in nearby labs and fields to develop the best berries.
Those scientists work at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center (GCREC) in Balm, about 30 miles south of Plant City. In their research, UF/IFAS researchers seek genetic traits that make strawberries succulent and able to dodge diseases. In fact, six years ago, Vance Whitaker worked with other UF/IFAS researchers to pinpoint the compounds that give strawberries the unique flavor that’s so appealing to consumers.
“These varieties are constantly getting better,” said Whitaker, an associate professor of horticultural sciences and strawberry breeder at the GCREC, part of UF/IFAS. “They’re tasting better. So, they fill those needs. They’re lasting longer in the refrigerator, and they’re more consistently available throughout the season.”
That season runs from Thanksgiving to Easter.
Since he arrived at GCREC in 2009, Whitaker has led the development of several new UF/IFAS strawberry cultivars, continuing a long tradition at the research and education center of meeting the needs of farmers and consumers.
The latest of those varieties are ‘Florida Brilliance’ and Sensation and they help strawberry farmers grow their crop more in a more sustainable fashion, Whitaker said.
“They’re friendlier to the environment because they require fewer chemicals to treat pests,” he said. “They’re also increasingly disease resistant.”
Like tomatoes, strawberries are about a $400 million-a-year crop in Florida. The two crops help drive the agricultural sector of Florida’s economy. In fact, farmers are growing ‘Florida Brilliance’ on about 5,000 acres of the 10,000 acres of Florida strawberry industry, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA).
Kenneth Parker, executive director of the FSGA, said, as they do every year, his group will have a working strawberry farm at the festival. The FSGA shows only UF/IFAS strawberry varieties because they’re bred in just the right conditions.
“The varieties are bred in the same conditions that we grow them commercially,” Parker said. “UF/IFAS breeds short-day varieties because that’s what grows best in Florida. The UF/IFAS varieties check all the boxes.”
The Florida Strawberry Festival runs from Feb. 27 (National Strawberry Day) through March 8 at 2209 W. Oak Ave., Plant City.