For most people, the word “variety” denotes a varied mix, a smattering, a diversity: “Jane uses a wide variety of apps on her smartphone.” It is a singular noun that almost always describes something plural, in the same way that “group” or “collection” does.
In agriculture, “variety” is used instead in the specific sense, as a singular noun. Scientists use the term to differentiate subspecies that can interbreed freely but have distinct genetic traits. The more widely grown a particular crop is, the more likely it is to have numerous different varieties, each with certain traits differentiating it from other varieties.
Seed companies and publicly funded universities are the two most important sources of crop varieties. Plant breeding — the process of crossing different varieties to create new ones — is a painstaking and time-consuming process that is particularly ill-suited for the normal year-to-year dynamics of growing and harvesting cash crops.
Two onion varieties, for example, may look identical in the store. But one may be adapted to Southern California, where days do not get as short in the winter or as long in the summer — and the other to Northern California. Planted at the same time on the same farm, one might produce many tons of onions and the other just a few sacks.
One of a farmer’s most important tasks is to identify the right varieties to plant and evaluate them on an annual basis. This is a constant process since new varieties are constantly introduced and others drop from the marketplace. If you have an orchard of walnut trees that produce one ton per acre, you need to know if a new variety is released that produces twice as much.
If a farmer can’t get the crop varieties that grow well on their farms, for whatever reason, it can put them out of business.
As a small strawberry grower, Terra Firma is 100% dependent on the patented varieties created by the University of California, in a field right across the street from us. They license these varieties to the public, so that strawberry nurseries can grow them and farms like us can buy the plants. Big strawberry producers like Driscolls, on the other hand, have their own breeding program and do not allow anyone else to plant their varieties.
A few years back, UC’s primary strawberry breeders decided they wanted to leave and start their own private company. Growers were concerned that the university would cut an insider deal with the breeders allowing them to take patents or other intellectual property with them. They — we — could be left unable to compete.
UC has a long track record of this type of schenanigans. A decade ago, the administration allowed another faculty researcher to buy the patents for the most popular asparagus variety in the world — UC 157 — for quite literally pennies on the dollar. After setting up his own private asparagus seed business and making millions of dollars selling the seed, he turned around and sold the company for hundreds of millions of dollars to a large European seed company. Not surprisingly, that seed company raised the price of the seed tenfold, and is currently not selling it in the U.S.
Thankfully in the case of strawberry patents, the California Strawberry Commission was watching out for berry farmers and sued UC over the insider deal. They did a great job publicizing the lawsuit, which made both state and national news. In February of this year the Commission settled with the university, which claimed that the whole thing had been a “misunderstanding”. The lawsuit guarantees that any and all strawberries bred at the University in the past or future will remain available to the public.
We’ve been growing strawberries at Terra Firma for twenty years. Almost every year we experiment with new varieties, but we have yet to find any that perform or taste better than the two we originally grew — Chandler and Camarosa. Because we grow strawberries in the Central Valley rather than along the coast, there are very few varieties that perform well on our farm. Unfortunately, we frequently have problems getting our hands on one or the other variety. If both varieties disappeared, we would be out of the strawberry business.
Early this spring, the nursery that supplies our strawberry plants was hit by a hailstorm that devastated their field of Camarosa plants. So our strawberry field for the coming year will have two new varieties in it that we have never grown — substitutions suggested by the nursery. We have been preparing the field this week and will begin planting in the next few days. Then we will be biting our nails for 9 nine months, watching those plants grow and eventually tasting the fruit to see if it lives up to your high standards for flavor. And then finally, evaluating the entire season to see how the new varieties stack up to the old ones in terms of yield.
You’ll get a chance to evaluate the new varieties at this year’s Farm Day, which as always will feature U-Pick berries. Go ahead and mark your calendars for Saturday, October 24th. We’ll make tickets available in mid-September.