Strawberries have been a valuable crop for many years, but cultivation has not always gone on unhindered. In the 1950s, America’s strawberry production was being ravaged by a root-rotting fungus known as red steele. The USDA Agricultural Research Service came to the rescue, saving the industry by breeding dozens of strawberry cultivars that could stand up to red steele and many other challenges growers face.
“Strawberry breeding at the ARS facility in Beltsville, MD, predates traffic lights,” said Kim Lewers, research geneticist at the ARS Genetic Improvement for Fruits and Vegetables Laboratory in Beltsville. USDA began strawberry research in 1910 and discovered how to keep strawberries red even after canning or freezing. “Strawberry plants developed by USDA were the first to survive shipping, which created a strawberry industry.”
ARS creates strawberry varieties that have natural resistance to fruit rot and produce fruit that stays fresh longer after harvest, Lewers said. “Farmers don’t have to use pesticides that prevent rot, and consumers can enjoy all their strawberries’ great flavor longer after purchase.”
According to Lewers, breeding is not the only aspect of ARS strawberry research; technology is also a priority. ARS is helping to advance technology that promises to improve the environmental footprint for strawberry farmers. Fumi Takeda, a research horticulturist with the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, WV, is working with industry colleagues to develop a machine that eliminates the need for pesticides. It works by shining ultraviolet (UV) light on the plants and their pests at night.
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