01 May 2023

Florida Pearl™: are white strawberries the fifth berry?


Could white strawberries become a new category of berries?

When Dr. Vance Whitaker, professor of horticulture and strawberry variety developer at the Gulf Coast Research and Education Center at the University of Florida, learned about white strawberries in Japan, he realized the product's growth potential for markets around the world.

In 2012, after a Japanese friend sent him some white strawberry seeds, he germinated them and crossed them with Florida red strawberry.

In essence, Whitaker shifted the white-colored trait to the background of a traditional Florida red strawberry to achieve something that could be grown in winter and early spring and in different places around the world, with the commercial characteristics to be produced on a large scale.

Dr. Vance Whitaker, professor of horticulture and strawberry variety developer.
Dr. Vance Whitaker, professor of horticulture and strawberry variety developer.

Last year, for the first time, more than 300 acres of white strawberries were grown in Florida.

"Once our Florida growers said 'This variety has sufficient yield and quality to create the product,' we released the white strawberry," Whitaker told FreshFruitPortal.com.

This became the first white strawberry variety to be commercialized in the U.S. marketthe Florida Pearl.

How did this white strawberry variety come about and what motivated the idea of breeding it in the United States?

I became aware of this variety through Japanese breeders who were in the forefront of developing this kind of project. Then, seeing the very high price of the fruit in their market, I realized that white strawberries have existed in the wild and commercially in different places as a kind of hobby industry, with varieties that have a very soft and small fruit.

I then realized that in the United States and Europe, and in most of the world outside Japan, white strawberries are not available to ordinary people. The available varieties had either been adapted specifically for Japan and grown there, or were not suitable for large-scale production in other parts of the world.

So, I think that is what makes it unique, because it is not so much that white strawberries did not exist, but just that they were not widely available. The Pearl variety is similar in size and shape to a red strawberry, with enough yield to be commercially produced and made available in grocery stores for ordinary people, and this is the first time that has happened.

Is there something particular about the production process that has made this product so "niche" and reduced it to only one market (i.e., Japan)?

A lot of it has to do with the fact that the demand for red strawberries in the United States is still rising sharply. Therefore, I don't think the market needed to introduce something new.

In the berry market as a whole, which has grown so much and been so successful, I don't think anyone was looking for a new category of berries.

We just wanted to try something different-the pineberry-and if we can eventually add a fifth berry to the berry basket, in addition to red strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry, then it may create an opportunity for our growers to expand their markets a little more.

The expansion of the area planted with white strawberries over the past year can be explained by the profitability of the segment. Some of our growers are choosing to invest in this product, which is giving some advantages because it is a distinct product, both visually and in terms of flavor (it tastes and smells a bit like pineapple). This has the potential to expand the strawberry category as a whole.


Why is the cost of white strawberries higher than that of traditional red ones?

It is a combination of the fact that not many are found and the fact that it is a new type of special product that people are interested in and see it as a niche, high-value product. In general, people are willing to pay a little more to try it.

Over the past few years, I have had many people taste them, and I have found that some people like them better than red strawberries, so I think they will continue to buy the product over time.

What response do you expect from consumers? A white strawberry that tastes like pineapple is so unconventional that it might put some people off.

At first everyone realized that people will not know what it is, so some marketing will be needed to educate people that, for example, it is not an unripe strawberry, but a different kind of strawberry.

The Florida companies that first started growing this strain have invested heavily in marketing through social media and the media to educate the public about this new strain. It is difficult to convince someone to try it for the first time, but once they have tried it they understand.

On the plus side, it has started to become more popular on social media, Instagram and TikTok, which allows the word to spread more organically.

It will be fascinating to see what happens in the next two years: Will it continue to grow? Will there be a ceiling because of price? Will it be able to grow as much as the organic sector? These are all open questions, because we are only in the early years of the product's life.

For now, consumption is mainly concentrated in the southeastern United States, although there are some areas in California (about 100 acres) with Wish Farms, but it has not yet penetrated the entire country.

What are the challenges of growing white strawberries compared to red strawberries?

The production of white strawberries is more challenging than that of red strawberries. However, it can be grown using basically the same production systems, and that is the beauty of it, because it is also a commercial strawberry.

The challenges come at harvest time, because the visual sign of ripeness is not so obvious. With red strawberries, of course, you can see the red majority and know that it is ripe.

For white ones, however, there are two clues that indicate the fruit is ready for harvest: one is that the seeds on the outside turn green and red. The other is that a pink spot develops on the white background. These signs are much more subtle, so pickers need to be trained.

In addition, the amount of pink hue can change depending on the environment: there is more pink hue in warmer climates, so binders must adapt according to the time of the season.


Another challenge affecting white fruits is that if a leaf or stem rubs against the surface of the fruit, it can cause dents on the fruit, especially in windy conditions. These types of dents are usually not noticeable on red fruits.

After all, in the premium category, white fruits are more unsellable than red fruits. This is another reason for the price difference, because in the end the yields will be a little lower.

Considering these challenges, what are the incentives for producers to switch to this variety or devote more land to its cultivation?

I think it is because it is a high-value product, so that is what can benefit the grower.

In addition, if this product grows and spreads over time, retail chains will demand more of it, as in the case of organic fruit, where retailers expect a strawberry supplier to provide both conventional products and a percentage of organic products.

Therefore, to be competitive, growers must have both, so I think there can be a competitive advantage in also having white strawberries in one's portfolio.

Growers must also consider the retail price difference between a conventional strawberry and a white strawberry. On average, a 16-ounce (453g) package of red strawberries costs $3.50, while white strawberries are sold in 10-ounce (283g) single-layer packages for $6.00. In essence, the price is more than double the weight.

Single-layer packages are also an advantage because they preserve the fruit better and prevent bruising, especially for white strawberries, which are soft so it is good not to have them stacked on top of each other.


Are we then talking about a superior product?


So what happens now to the farmers? What does the market need to keep an eye on?

The main thing to share from my perspective as a breeder is that we are developing improved varieties of white strawberries. The initial variety, called Pearl-109, is just the beginning, and next season we have a new one, called Pearl-166, which has some improvements, especially for growers, because the fruit is a little firmer and therefore easier to pick. It also has better disease resistance and a stronger flavor, so we think that will be an advantage as well.

In the future we are studying other selections to produce a day-neutral variety that can then be grown in places like northern Europe, making it available year-round.

The main message is that we are trying to improve the flavor and harvest conditions. We know there are a lot of improvements to be made over time because this is new to everyone, but there is definitely a lot more to come with the name Pearl.

Source: Fresh Fruit Portal

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