New varieties on the Florida horizon

In order to provide consumers with a delicious and nutritious selection of fruits and vegetables, combat adverse growing conditions and increase marketing opportunities, new varieties are continually being developed.

Florida citrus has undergone somewhat of a revolution in the past decade, bringing the results of research efforts to Florida groves in a more timely manner than in the past. Peter Chaires heads up the New Varieties Development & Management Corporation, which supports variety development, commercialization and licensing on behalf of Florida citrus growers.

“The University of Florida and USDA had traditionally brought out new varieties about every 25 years,” said Chaires. Old line varieties remained popular and there was not significant demand for new varieties.  ”We were getting to the point where we needed to replace a lot of our varieties to remain competitive on a global scale and keep up with consumer preferences.”

NVMC is funded through a contract with FL Dept of Citrus and it’s board of directors represents all sectors of the state’s citrus industry. NVDMC provides financial and strategic support to the in-state citrus breeding programs and also seeks to acquire varieties from other states and countries for evaluation in Florida’s unique climate.

U.S. Early Pride tangerine.

NVDMC has exclusive rights to a USDA-developed variety, the U.S. Early Pride, a nearly seedless Fallglo tangerine. By working with representatives from other citrus-growing states, it can structure agreements and set rates as a united group. “When we told USDA we wanted to obtain the rights to US Early Pride, patent it and manage it as a multi-state cooperative effort, some questioned whether competing states could get along well enough to do the job. But in the face of intense competition from other countries, there is a renewed enthusiasm among the states to work more cooperatively,” Chaires said.

In addition to the U.S. Early Pride, Chaires says NVDMC has more than 20 varieties under contract from five countries. “We think that the highest and best chance of finding something really good is going to be something developed here, but we continue to bring things in from other areas and move them through the quarantine process with the state and then put them out for evaluation plantings and see what works,” said Chaires.

Because Florida’s climate is unique in that it’s considered subtropical, but still experiences freezes, domestic varieties tend to fare better. But that doesn’t mean foreign-bred types can’t succeed. “Sometimes varieties developed in a Mediterranean climate don’t perform well in Florida and sometimes they surprise you.  So we think most of what will be successful is either bred here or bred elsewhere using varieties that originated in Florida or are close relatives.”

One of those varieties in the pipeline is the 950 tangerine, a seedless, easy-to-peel tangerine that could compete favorably with clementines. “It’s a beautiful fruit,” said Chaires. “It’s the size of a clementine, but with much better color and flavor.”

However, breeding a wonderful fruit is only part of the equation. The growers do the work of figuring out the production end of it. “If they’re successful, this one’s going to be a barn burner,” said Chaires. A seedless orange for processing developed by USDA is also gaining attention.

New produce varieties will be introduced at the Florida Ag Expo.

For tangerines, NVDMC looks for those that are easy to peel, have few seeds or no seeds, and exceptional flavor. When looking at grapefruit varieties, goals include resistance to disease, earlier or later harvest than existing varieties and lower levels of the compound that causes drug interactions.

One way NVDMC decides whether to champion a new variety is by its variety display days, organized through UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. At these events, promising but unproven citrus selections are displayed. “The fruit are broken up into categories: fresh orange, processed orange, specialty, grapefruit and Pummelo and sometimes acid fruit types,” said Chaires. “Attendees are asked to peel, section, eat or drink as many as possible and complete a survey. Data from the survey is compiled and shared with the IFAS Plant Improvement Team.”

All are welcome to attend the variety display days, but those interested should send an email to Chairs (pchaires@nvdmc.org) to be added to NVDMC’s communication list. Learn more about variety display days here.

“We try to limit participation to 35 or less. This is a manageable group size,” said Chaires. Most of the events take place at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, though one large event is scheduled each year at the Indian River Research and Education Center in Fort Pierce. “It takes most people about 45 minutes to complete the display. The IFAS Display Dates provide growers, processors, marketers, retailers and packers the opportunity to assess material emerging from the breeding effort, contribute to decision-making and remain abreast of the latest developments,” he said, adding that the process can only succeed with maximum participation. The dates for this year are (all are 10 a.m.):

Nov. 6: CREC – Lake Alfred

Dec. 18: CREC – Lake Alfred

Jan. 22: IRREC – Fort Pierce

Feb. 19: CREC – Lake Alfred

FFSP ensures that there is foundation seed and nursery stocks of the best-known varieties adaptable to the Florida climate and soils available annually to Florida farmers and producers in adequate quantities and at reasonable prices.

Another cooperative effort between IFAS, Florida Foundation Seed Producers and NVDMC focuses on getting varieties to the grower sooner rather than later. This program is called Fast Track. It allows growers to get in on the ground floor of testing and be rewarded for their time and resources.

“Fast Track is unique,” said Chaires.  “The traditional way of releasing a new variety requires stacks of data. In years past, a release of a variety was synonymous with a guarantee. The variety had been tested in a wide range of locations and conditions. Grower could base their planting decisions on a considerable bank of information. While it is still desirable to conduct long-term trials and gather information, many growers are feeling the pressure of the marketplace. Growers are saying, ‘We need to respond to the needs of the consumer and remain competitive. We can’t wait.’ So IFAS listened to the needs of industry and participated in developing  a system where the growers would step in and evaluate varieties for their own use.”

NVDMC hopes to have 50 to 100 growers participate in Fast Track. “If they invest their time and resources in planting these new varieties just to see if they’re worth it, they earn the right to plant them commercially and get a preferential rate and a head start. That appeals to some people, but not to all,” said Chaires.

Chaires is grateful for the support of UF/IFAS. “Their researchers are interested and involved. Florida Foundation Seed Producers, the company that manages their licensing, is also very involved and responsive,” he said.

The citrus sector isn’t the only one working to get new varieties to the marketplace.

The UF Tomato Improvement Program located at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center is conducting research with the goals of improving yields, fruit quality (with a focus on improved flavor and high lycopene content), multiple disease resistances and heat tolerance. Private companies also are conducting ongoing research.

Bell pepper yields have been increased dramatically recently due to continued introduction of new varieties resistant to bacterial spot, said Dr. Monica Ozores-Hampton, a UF research who specializes in vegetables.  Florida bunch radishes also have benefitted from research into new varieties, she said.

“Growers rely on non-hybrid varieties as their standard variety, which offers low yield and quality,” Ozores-Hampton said. “A variety trial was conducted in the fall, winter and spring 2009-2010 seasons with 21 hybrid and non-hybrid varieties to assess yield and quality. Results indicated that hybrid varieties can increase radish yield and quality for Florida growers,” she said.

In the Florida snap bean category, Ozores-Hampton says growers depend on new varieties to increase bean yields and quality and to maintain leadership in the U.S. market. “A variety trial was conducted in the winter of 2012 with 13 bean varieties in two locations. Preliminary results based on one season indicated yield and color followed by yields are the most important attributes for Florida bean growers,” she said.

Winterstar is a new Florida strawberry variety.

In the strawberry department, UF varieties Strawberry Festival and Florida Radiance comprised 80 percent of the Florida market in 2010-2011. “Radiance is beginning to overshadow Festival, and a new variety, Winterstar, will be in greater volume for the first time this year,” said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Association.

The UF/IFAS Plant Breeding Program’s strawberry program, led by Dr. Vance Whitaker at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center, aims for new varieties that offer high early yield, excellent flavor and shelf life, uniform appearance and resistance to multiple diseases.

Dr. Jim Olmstead of UF’s blueberry improvement program located in the Horticultural Sciences Department leads efforts to develop hybrids that develop low chill, earlier ripening berry cultivars with a high yield of excellent quality fruit. New cultivars must also show tolerance to disease, insect and soil problems that threaten productivity of the fruit in Florida and the Southeast.

Two new blueberry varieties generating excitement in the industry are Farthing and Meadowlark, developed to enhance fruit quality, produce high yields and open up the possibility for mechanical harvesting.

Other IFAS forays into new varieties include lettuce cultivars, sugar cane and sweet corn.

Of course, researchers don’t work solely on their own. Many growers collaborate with researchers to develop varieties that are pest- and disease-resistant, of high quality and tolerant to whatever Mother Nature tosses their way. Many FFVA members work with researchers on new varieties as well as up-and-coming production practices, conservation efforts and more.

Learn more about new varieties from Florida Foundation Seed Producers and keep an eye out for varieties developed by private companies and producers. The Florida Ag Expo will offer the latest information on new varieties and much more. Learn more here.

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