I have seen it written that America buys with its eyes. I pretty much agree. And they can buy with complete disregard of functionality. Pickup trucks have grown to gargantuan proportions, even though they don’t carry anymore payload than my little Toyota truck. My Tacoma is a small, handy truck I bought 2004. The Tacoma of 2017 is just about the same size as a Ford F150 but cant really do as much work as my little version. And it’s all tricked out with powered this and that, fuzzy carpet (great for collecting dirt) and a million amenities that a normal blue collar tradesman or working stiff will never take the time to use. We have enumerable choices in all facets of our shopping existence. You can buy Apple computers and telephones by color. The GAP and J Crew depend upon us to embrace the latest styles they put forward. You can get your kids sneakers with lights in the heels. And on and on….
Small fruit and produce are no exception. People buy pretty. They talk about nutrient dense wholesome and safe produce. But the reality here in America is that most folks want their food cheap, safe and pretty. “Attractive” still trumps everything else. Heirloom tomatoes are quite varied in flavor and appearance, yet wholesale accounts tell us that the wide variety of colors and shapes are what generally drive the sales, not the nuanced flavors of the tomatoes themselves. Bell peppers are undergoing a renaissance driven by the same marketing of eye appeal. Plant breeders offer peppers in green, purple, red, orange and yellow colors in just as many shapes. And then there are hot pepper choices in a myriad of shapes and degree of hotness. Yeowtch!
Recently the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine carried an article on Driscolls Berries, the empire that manages to keep strawberries, raspberries and blackberries on your supermarket shelves year around. Driscolls plant breeders are breeding strawberries in pink, white and polka dot configurations. (The polka dot is really the external seed of the strawberry contrasted against a white flesh.) The powers to be at Driscolls spent a lot of time figuring out how to get product on those supermarket shelves, and they are thinking just as hard about how to keep their product there, and that means clever marketing and innovative plant breeding. They already own and drive the market, but they are still not complacent.
The Driscoll berry defines the norm and standard that today’s strawberry is to be judged by. The berries are universally large, have large green calyxes (the green caps), and a very orange shade of red (disregarding the white tip). The fruit is very dense and solid and slightly fragrant. The flavor is tangy, with some level of sweetness which is often times more determined by environmental factors than genetic make up. I will buy them in the dead of winter when the storage apples get mealy, pomegranates go out of season and I have had just about enough bananas and citrus. As a grower and someone who is always fond of a fresh strawberry, I have to admit it is a pretty amazing product. Built into its genetic makeup is an ability to sit on the store shelf for a week without breakdown. But let’s talk about its color, because that is where it affects us here at the farm.
Here at Edgewater Farm our strawberry season extends about 4 weeks. We plant about 6 different varieties of June bearing strawberries. (Note: Every strawberry plant has a finite reproductive yield potential. Those that bear that fruit crop in short periods of time are referred to as “June bearing” and those that continually bear fruit over several months are categorized as “ever bearing “ strawberries. The majority of Driscolls and California berries are ever bearing plants). We purchase our plant stock from nurseries that are growing out plant stock dedicated to commercial growers such as ourselves. A great many of those varieties that we grow were developed by a lone wolf plant geneticist and breeder named Andrew Jamieson who works for the Canadian Agricultural University Extension Service out of a provincial university in Kentville, Nova Scotia. Over the years we have grown out and used his patented plants because they grow well, look good, fit in the plant mix and most of all taste good. Jamieson is “old school”. He doesn’t short cut with GMO; he pollinates, grows out seed stock samples, and rogues these varieties from thousands that he trials every year. Then, he samples up to 5000 berries a day for a period of four weeks determining which variety will get to “the show” or go out to the compost pile. He is a champ of a guy with a good sense of humour as well as being an industry legend among eastern American and Canadian small fruit growers.
Strawberries in New England are very different than the California, or even the Floridian berry. They don’t take the heat well. They tend to be darker color. They are generally not as large throughout the season. The fruit is considerably juicier and softer. In recent years the darker red fruit has met with some resistance from produce clerks when wholesaling those strawberries and we hear comments like “those must be rotting-they are too purpleish-reddish and soft.” On occasion we have had them refused and sent back. It is because the berry that people see or clerks work with -the Driscoll or California berry- is very large, often white tipped , dense and orangey in color. Because it is on the shelf virtually twelve months a year, it defines what a strawberry should look and taste like. All those cultivars we grew 30 years ago like Catskill, Sparkle, Blomidon and so forth…..would never get in the front door.
In any new variety trial now we take color very heavily into consideration in deference to the California berry. We can compete on taste quite handily with Andrew Jasmiesons’ Nova Scotian cultivars, but shelf life, size and color will be tougher. I understand that “bling” drives American taste in all of life’s facets. There are magazines for sale - at those same supermarket checkouts where you can buy some pretty nice strawberries in February -who are devoted to detailing for us the latest clothing decisions made by the Kardashians. I just never thought that shape and appearance would drive so dramatically the produce industry.