The strawberry breeding program at North Carolina State University has a history dating back to the 1930s. Like most land grant university research, a focus at NCSU was enhancing agronomic traits like yield and disease resistance. Since Dr. Jeremy Pattison began leading the program in 2008, and formed an alliance with Johnson & Wales University’s culinary education program, as well as a quantitative data analysis company, the focus of NCSU’s strawberry breeding program has expanded.

Strawberries at the Upper Mountain Research Station in Laurel Springs, NC.

Today the main objective of the N.C. Strawberry Project, now under the aegis of NCSU’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the North Carolina Research Campus, and funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation, is to address fruit quality in strawberries and breed for better eating quality including flavor, texture and size. “We’re taking a different approach and asking what is quality to you, to someone who cooks with all different types of food?” explains Pattison. “We’re considering it from a broader consumer standpoint as well.”

Pattison believes that in order to make growers more successful breeders you have to start by focusing on the consumer. “We’ve focused on what’s important to the grower (shipping, shelf life, etc.), but what’s important to the consumer sometimes gets a little bit overlooked.”

Partnering with Johnson & Wales enables the plant breeder to get feedback from a group with a sophisticated palate. Pattison wants to know what gourmands like about strawberries, and what traits are not present in strawberries now that would make them more palatable to a consumer group. Consumers may pay more for a better berry, and they are likely to buy more berries. Pattison says that’s good news for growers.

Johnson & Wales serves as a bridge between the NCSU researchers and a network of chefs that includes faculty, alumni, students and industry groups. Yet, subjective data such as, “I like this. I don’t like that. This one is OK,” does not provide the researchers with enough information to make substantive breeding choices. Enter Sensory Spectrum, a company that conducts product quality evaluations and offers Pattison’s research team semi-quantitative data with a professional sensory approach. This type of information helps the breeders determine which traits to enhance and which to minimize or eliminate, and so influences the parent plant choices in each generation.

Begun in August 2010, the N.C. Strawberry Project’s initial variety trial included 40 varieties of strawberry germplasm from around the world. Pattison and his team evaluated heirloom varieties and contemporary germplasm from the southeastern U.S., New England, California, the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Europe. “We’ve tried to capture what the phenotypic fruit diversity looks like in the varieties that we currently have available,” he says.

Pattison’s team grew the strawberries in the Piedmont area of North Carolina, and allowed environmental conditions to create a simple process of elimination. Of the initial entries, only 20 survived the North Carolina winter and adapted to growing conditions. Pattison submitted those cultivars to Sensory Spectrum. The data he and his team received in return contained critical evaluation of characteristics including texture, seed position, color and flavor.

The researchers are still analyzing the data. They hope to see relationships between consumer preferences and the genetic information about each germplasm sample. With the data analyzed, Pattison’s team will map the characteristics against the quantitative data sets, and use that to evaluate whether those characteristics consistently associated with a high approval level can be improved or enhanced, and whether undesirable traits can be bred out or minimized.

“At the end of the project, what I think we will have is some really excellent phenotypic data on those descriptive analyses,” he boasts. Pattison is also conducting wet chemistry in the laboratory to garner quantitative data on things like sugar, pH, and total acidity, and aromatic profiles that contribute to flavor. “We can use all this data and ask who has a good phenotype for the trait we’re looking for.”

From the data collected on these initial trials, the researcher expects to find a cultivar that’s strong in some desirable characteristics and weak in others. The next step will be to transfer that positive trait into a variety that has good agronomics. “That’s where the real breeding is going to start,” he says.

Growers will probably have to wait five to seven years for the new strawberry varieties. Pattison says when fruit quality is the goal, it’s a sweet reward worth waiting for.

The author is a freelance writer based in Mass-achusetts and monthly contributor to Growing.