A few years ago, Phil Stewart and Paul Sandefur both came to see me, Phil in 2001, Paul in 2010. Both said they wanted to learn to be fruit breeders and take part in the classical fruit breeding program at the University of Arkansas.
Phil had been inspired as a member of the support staff of Dr. Bruce Reisch’s grape breeding program at the New York Agricultural Experiment Station/Cornell University. Paul had recently completed an undergraduate research project with me examining several unique grape traits. I was honored to take them on as MS students. Phil went on to attain his PhD at the University of Florida, Paul at Washington State University.
Phil was employed at Driscoll Strawberry Associates in 2007 as a strawberry breeder, and is now Global Plant Breeding Director for Strawberries, based in Watsonville, CA. Paul began work in 2016 as U.S. Blueberry Breeder at Fall Creek Farm and Nursery, Lowell, OR. They have (Phil) and will (Phil and Paul) make substantial contributions in berry breeding in their careers. The future of berry breeding is in good hands with these two scholars, along with a host of other inspired young breeders in both the private and public sectors.
The Desirable Private Sector
Is there anything unusual in this story? Yes. When I completed my last academic degree in 1983, I never considered any other path than the public sector for employment. That is what almost all other young PhDs thought who were considering positions in fruit breeding, or more specifically berry breeding. Now more than 30 years since I finished school, private sector breeding positions are very common, and these two gentlemen, and a host of others, have chosen the private sector rather than university or other public-entity employment.
Why such a change in career paths? The first area to examine is plant breeding in general in the U.S. Land grant universities and the USDA-ARS were the primary sources of improved varieties, along with expanded knowledge in the area of plant breeding and genetics, for many years. Private breeding efforts developed in major row crops and vegetables, and now the majority of new varieties come from the private sector. Don’t get me wrong, there are still important variety developments from public programs in these crop areas, and major findings in breeding and genetics technology continue to flow from public institutions. In some ways, fruits, including berries, are simply catching up.
Why might a career in berry breeding in the private sector be attractive? There are a couple of reasons that come to mind. An issue is the nature of a university job. Young faculty are routinely required to publish extensively and generate revenue to attain tenure in universities. This can be a daunting task to consider just coming out of school. Plus, teaching and professional service requirements take time. These duties, or “scholarship” as it is referred to in academia, can be distant to the key focus of breeding new varieties. Or said more simply, an industry job targets breeding and release of new varieties, and a public-sector job requires a wider spread of duties. Graduates these days have a choice, and the private-sector job has attractive aspects; just ask Phil and Paul.
Shift to Privatization
Why the change in berry breeding in recent years? I believe the first reason is the increased value of the crops involved. Berries enjoy high profits in the produce area, and where money is made, product development is encouraged. I have always been impressed with the Driscoll commitment, from strawberry breeding undertaken in the 1940s, to later expansion in raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry. The company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on these programs to produce their proprietary array of varieties. This success did not come cheaply or easy. Berry breeding takes a long commitment to improve varieties, and today’s success leads to tomorrow’s new variety requirements.
Privatization in berry breeding has been led by strawberries, specifically California in the U.S. There is a range of strawberry varieties now available from private programs to parallel those from public programs. The same can be said now for raspberries, blueberries, and even blackberries. I can think of a number of private programs that have made substantial investments in the last 15 years, and products from these investments are expanding in production in the U.S. and worldwide.
How does this affect growers? Many growers may not have noticed much change, depending on crop, location, market utilized, broker/shipper, or other factor. But, in fruits, one can look at apples to see the impact of more controlled varieties. Most of the major recent developments, whether from the public or private sector, are being managed by “clubs” or some other management approach. This has, and likely will, become more widespread in berry crops.
I believe it is valuable to have a range of berry breeding programs, both public and private, providing new varieties for U.S. growers. Universities and the USDA-ARS have had substantial reductions in fruit variety development programs in the last 30 years. I doubt there will be a major turnaround in this trend. This opens the door for private programs to become more important.
Are there drawbacks to this evolution? One is that training new plant breeders is imperative, and if universities don’t do it, who will? Training in plant breeding is a blend of scientific knowledge of genetics and related technology along with exposure to actually know how to manage and operate a breeding program. The latter experience comes from working with an experienced breeder.
Future of Berry Breeding
We need to keep a close eye on this issue, and be aware that education in breeding must be maintained in our universities. Another concern that arises with the trend to private varieties is their availability to small or local-market growers. This is a genuine area of worry, and public programs will likely continue to carry a substantial duty in widely available variety choices.
It has been a highlight of my university breeding career to have released numerous publicly available varieties (and yes, almost all are patented with royalties paid upon purchase) and have the joy to see these grown and marketed in pick-your-own operations, as well as on-farm sales, farmers’ markets, and community supported agriculture approaches. I have also enjoyed interactions with a range of private programs as they develop innovative varieties using new technologies I have had my hand in creating.
Both avenues have been exciting, and have led to achievements beyond anything I could imagine. Phil and Paul have a long way to go, and they will have their hand in developing new plants beyond their dreams, while traveling down the private-sector path.
They and other breeders in private and public jobs will continue to brighten our horizons. Let the berry breeding good times roll!