Blackberry and Raspberry Tour at Pacific Berry Breeding

The Monterey Bay chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers extends many thanks to breeder Ellen Thompson and field manager Juan of Pacific Berry Breeding in Watsonville, CA, for leading yesterday’s exhaustive and elucidating tour of their caneberry breeding facility. Pacific Berry Breeding, one of only a handful of caneberry breeding operations spread across the globe, works with material from public breeding institutions and germplasm repositories, and under contract with major commercial berry producers, to develop novel varieties of blackberry and raspberry for the fresh market.

Ellen demonstrated for us the traditional breeding methods employed here, showing her technique for making controlled crosses via manual pollination. She discussed how seedling varieties are evaluated for quality and commercial viability, and how seedlings are chosen to advance from season to season as “selections”, and then as “advanced selections” suitable for larger field trials. Fewer than 2% of of an initial cohort of seedlings will make it as far as propagation for extensive trials.

Mendelian genetics is a numbers game. The vast majority of seedlings grown at this berry breeding facility will ultimately be scrapped once deemed unsuitable for one reason or another. This is just the beginning of a much larger pile of plants destined for compost.

Regarding selection criteria, she explained that while certain conditions for commercial suitability must be met as a baseline, such as packability, disease resistance, and other production factors, the major benchmark for evaluating breeding success is flavor. For a release to be a true success, it must be more delicious than the current gold standard commercial variety.

Ellen discusses some of the finer points of fruit color preferences in raspberry marketing.

Beyond breeding, we learned much about caneberry culture, cultural issues and pests, and berries themselves and their marketing. Particularly interesting, we learned about the ascendence over just the last twenty years of primocane-bearing blackberry varieties, and the even more recent rise of containerized berry production.

Fueling us throughout this tour, we were graciously encouraged to pick and eat fruit to our hearts delight from the long rows of seedling plants. Tasting from hundreds of berry varieties that only a small handful of people have ever tasted before, we were able to familiarize ourselves with many of the varied flavors, colors, shapes, and sizes of fruits contained within a huge swath of blackberry and raspberry genetics.

This was a fun, insightful, and inspiring tour for those who came out, and we again thank Pacific Berry Breeding for allowing this opportunity. After the berry tour, those of us with free afternoons reconvened for a potluck at chapter secretary Ken Konviser’s gorgeous homestead market farm in the hills of Corralitos, where we got to see his healthy orchard of various avocado varieties, bask in the blossom scent of a 20 year old cherimoya tree, and examine his experiments with a half dozen other or more other even more unusual rare fruiting tree species.

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