It is rare that someone can claim two successful careers in their lifetime, but Alto Straughn is among them. The first came with the University of Florida (UF) where he served for 27 years as an Extension specialist on the Gainesville campus. The second came as a farmer, growing watermelons, blueberries, timber, and cattle. He has been growing crops now for 46 years.
To learn the history of blueberries in Florida, Straughn is a good place to start. He was chief among a handful of men who started the industry virtually out of scratch. He planted his first blueberries in 1983.
“At the time, it was myself and Bob Yancey and Jimmy Miller in this area (North Central Florida), so there really was not an industry to speak of,” says Straughn. “There was no market and we just sort of had to peddle them. You have to credit the Michigan Blueberry Growers Cooperative who started a deal down here. They were looking to expand and you’d become a member and they would market your berries.”
As growers gained more experience with plantings, UF’s original recommendation to plant rabbiteye varieties began to fall out favor and highbush plantings became the predominant selection. According to Straughn, Florida’s blueberry history is a progression of developing newer varieties with desirable traits and ones that fit the April market window best.
“You are looking for a good hardy plant that is early and makes a firm, crisp berry with a light blue blush that tastes great,” says Straughn. “I hear people say, myself included, that we need new and better varieties. The bottom line is over the past 25 to 30 years, the UF breeding program has brought us berries that are a lot bigger, firmer, and nearly a month earlier than what we had before. We’ve made terrific improvements in varieties.”
Straughn has played a critical role in variety development over the years cooperating closely with plant breeder Paul Lyrene, who is now retired but still active in the program. He also works closely with UF’s current breeder Jim Olmstead. Over the past 20 years, UF has evaluated 350 to 400 varieties on Straughn’s farms.
Historically, Star was the dominant variety planted on the farm. “We are not planting any more Star in Florida because a couple of viruses have come along and we can’t keep the plants alive,” says Straughn. “We also planted Windsor, which was named after our farm in Windsor. We’ve moved away from Windsor because it can have skin tear. We planted Millennia, too. There’s not too much Millennia planted anymore because it can sunburn even though it makes a big yield.”
The UF varieties Farthing and Meadowlark are the mostly widespread berries planted on Straughn’s acreage today. “Meadowlark is beginning to show some xylella problems, but we don’t know to what degree yet,” says Straughn. “It clogs up the vascular system of the plants, and the plants eventually die.
Indigocrisp will be the latest variety released by the University. “This will be one of our first varieties to really improve firmness and crispness,” says Straughn.
Future breeding efforts are placing an emphasis on mechanical harvest. “Mechanical harvest is going to become more important as labor availability becomes more of a challenge,” says Straughn. “Over the next decade or so, you are going to see larger growers moving to mechanical harvest after April 20. We are committed to that direction on this farm. Two seasons ago, we started planting some selected research varieties for mechanical harvest.”
Breeders are looking for a variety that can take the rough handling and not affect shelflife. The bases of the plants need to be smaller to avoid losing some of the crop on the ground.
Plant longevity is another priority for the breeding program. “If we are replanting every eight to 10 years, it is a huge cost for growers,” says Straughn. “It takes a year or two to get to good production, and then the final year or two, production falls off. Longevity is a major financial challenge and our breeders know it. Even two or three more years of longevity will be a major benefit.”