Looking for a better berry? Beltsville scientists may have the answer Research Center leads the way in strawberry breeding

April 17, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

On the seventh day, the Lord rested. But the work wasn't nearly done.

There were problems with the strawberry. Some were sweet enough, but many were not. Some were long, some squat, some firm, but many not. They often bruised easily and were vulnerable to an array of diseases and pests.

The trouble was consistency, not to mention productivity. Something had to be done.

This is the sort of problem they like to sink their teeth into at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Prince George's County, a 7,200-acre anomaly of pastures, silos, hothouses, laboratories and barns smack in the middle of suburban Washington.

About 450 Ph.D.'s toil in laboratories at the $90 million-a-year center, the largest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 130 research stations around the world. Research conducted there has produced -- among other things -- more disease-resistant and abundant crops, new fertilizers, leaner pigs and turkeys designed to fit nicely into the average American oven.

And better strawberries.

Since 1919, a succession of USDA scientists -- first at Glenn Dale, then Beltsville -- has helped nurture the fruit to unprecedented heights of hardiness, productivity, consistent shape and flavor. Varieties developed there have come to dominate East Coast commercial farms, while the ancestors of Maryland plants thrive in California, which produces three-quarters of the U.S. strawberry crop.

In the early days of government strawberry research, a strawberry farmer might expect to harvest a ton or two of berries per acre in a season. Improvements in genetics and farming techniques -- developed at Beltsville and elsewhere -- have since boosted the average yield to six or seven tons. Also, the average strawberry is bigger, more uniform in color and tastes better than when scientists began their work in the unheated greenhouses of Glenn Dale.

"What the modern breeders have been doing is concentrating the desirable qualities in fewer and fewer varieties," says Gene J. Galletta, who now heads Beltsville's strawberry breeding program.

When the men who jump-started the giant California strawberry industry came to Maryland seeking help in the 1920s, Glenn Dale "was the center of strawberry breeding" in America, says Frank Westerlund, research director for the California Strawberry Advisory Board. They returned to the West Coast with plants grown in Maryland, sowing seeds of a California crop valued last year at about $450 million.

Bill Courter, secretary-treasurer of the North American Strawberry Growers Association in Simpson, Ill., says Beltsville's work on breeding plants resistant to the killer fungus red stele "basically saved the [strawberry] industry in the Midwest."

It all started with George M. Darrow, a Vermont native who did for strawberry breeding what Chuck Yeager did for space flight.

There is something of the pilot's confidence in the tight smile and the sharp eyes of Mr. Darrow as he appears in a 1930 photograph in "The Strawberry," a book he published in 1966. Dressed in wide-brimmed hat and coveralls, Mr. Darrow, then 41, poses with three other men in a greenhouse in what was then the Glenn Dale Horticultural Station, a stone's throw from Beltsville.

To this day, Darrow's Berry Farm stands in Glenn Dale, marking the spot where the granddad of the American strawberry established a farm in the 1930s.

By the time he retired in 1957, Mr. Darrow -- who died at the age of 94 in 1983 -- saw about 40 new varieties of strawberries introducedto American farmers.

Since 1977, Darrow's work has been carried on by Mr. Galletta, the fourth in a succession of scientists to head the strawberry breeding program. Mr. Galletta, 63, a round man with a kind face and a voice suited to FM classical radio, has devoted 40 years to improving the strawberry.

"We want to give the farmers a strawberry which can be grown with very little worry and in almost any circumstances," says Mr. Galletta, who started working at Beltsville in 1959.

It's a tall order. While breeding berries for better flavor, texture and eye appeal, scientists try to equip the fruit with resistance to an army of pests: 10 strains of red stele root, black vine weevils, clipper weevils, strawberry sap beetles and aphids, to mention just a few. The quest for disease- and insect-resistant plants -- in the hope of curbing pesticide use -- has become a mainstay for strawberry breeders across the country, said John Maas, a Beltsville plant pathologist.

Mr. Galletta has named and sent several new varieties into the world, among them the Earliglow, which since its introduction in 1975 has established an East Coast standard for strawberry flavor.

The Earliglow is one of Mr. Galletta's favorites. Asked if he likes strawberries in general, he says "very much."

Yet, he says, much remains to be done to make the fruit better. There will always be pests, and always the challenge of stretching the harvesting season a bit more or the growing range bit further by breeding plants that thrive on less sunlight and little water.

Then there's the question of breeding for more ellagic acid, a naturally occurring chemical in strawberries that has been known to inhibit the growth of some cancers. Mr. Galletta can just imagine it: the fruit that has formed the center of his working life playing a role in curbing a terrible disease.

"That would be great," he says.

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