Research geneticist Chad Finn runs a berry-breeding program aimed at creating new strains of blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries for the Pacific Northwest berry industry. He and his wife, self-described “horticultural fiends,” make plants their lives and livelihood.
“We are plant geeks who spend a lot of time in the garden and cruising plant sales, gardens, and nurseries,” said Finn, who also enjoys canning and freezing the bounty of his own garden along with making wine and beer.
Based out of the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Laboratory in Corvallis, Finn’s job requires patience. New strains of blackberries can take years to develop. The program itself is nearly 100 years old.
“As far as I can tell, it’s the oldest blackberry breeding program that’s been continuously operating in the world,” said Finn.
“We can produce more per acre than pretty much any other place,” Finn said. “It’s a really good climate–not too cold, not too hot.”
Most of the fruit is processed: frozen, dried, or made into juice; then shipped globally. Oregon berries end up in everything from yogurt to ice cream, cereals, and even shampoo. Some products, such as Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, rely on intense berry flavor—in this case, the company uses only Hood and Totem strawberries from Oregon.
Growing in the Pacific Northwest is an expensive endeavor. Growers rely on cost-effective machine harvesting and high-quality berries so they can ask more for their fruit and compete in the global market. The processing industry limits its number of varieties for the sake of uniformity; everything from pH to color must be the same for commercial use. In the fresh fruit market, growers switch up varieties more often, as whatever berries look, smell, and taste good will sell.
Each year, Finn carefully selects parents for his plants, trying to maximize positive traits such as flavor, aroma, and how well a berry holds up during shipping. Before planting the seeds of a new strain, Finn soaks the seeds in concentrated sulfuric acid for a few hours to mimic the process of weathering off the outer coat that typically takes place in a bird’s digestive system. The seeds also have to undergo a “winter” of two to three months in cool and moist conditions. Out of the initial 8,000 seedlings, Finn keeps only 40 to 80 of the hardiest plants.
A cooperative effort between the USDA and the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station at OSU, the program brought about Oregon’s most common blackberry variety, the marion blackberry. The marionberry is fairly ideal, but the thorns are a problem—not for those who harvest it, but for companies afraid of consumer lawsuits.
During the winter, don’t expect the best flavor from fresh berries at the store. Many blackberries are shipped from Mexico despite the country lacking the winter temperatures that the plant requires. To simulate the stress of winter, growers spray fertilizers over the plant to defoliate it, then spray them with plant growth regulators to make them go into flower. For any long-distance shipping, the berries are also picked early so they can ship while firm.
“They’ll pick raspberries that are pink at best, more often white; both of those things will ripen up as they’re shipped, but they’ll never get any sweeter, they’ll never have any more flavor.”
Instead, choose frozen berries during the off-season, especially for cooking.
“The frozen fruit is picked at the peak of ripeness—it’s frozen right away, it’s ready to go,” Finn said. “If you’re going to mix it in your oatmeal or yogurt, you should be taking a handful out of a bag of frozen fruit because you’re going to be a lot happier.”
None of the berries that Finn works with—or anyone else, for that matter—are genetically modified because consumers object.
“Everything we do is very traditional,” he said. “In berry crops, there are no GM berries that are cultivars on the marketplace.”
Currently, Finn is perhaps most excited about a new strain of blackberry, today only known as #3447. In blind evaluations, it outranked the marion blackberry in every trait: color, aroma, flavor, and overall quality.
“This one really stands out,” Finn said.
The next step is naming.
“I try to get people involved; we’ll get people in a room and buy pizza and see what feels good.”
Eventually, the berry will join the ranks of patented berries. Future royalties may help fund future work at the breeding program, and the creation of new and better breeds.
Raspberry or Blackberry?
To determine if a fruit is a raspberry or a blackberry, pluck it. If the core is left behind on the plant, it’s a raspberry. If the core stays in the fruit, it’s a blackberry.
By Jen Matteis