Brassica breeders are doing their bit to help growers reduce production costs, if the seed houses' autumn demonstrations in Lincolnshire were anything to go by.
Several companies are working on lines that are easier to cut in an effort to drive down harvesting costs, slightly adjusting plant shapes to make them quicker to bag, or making progress with disease resistance.
At the same time, they are on a mission to innovate, showcasing new varieties that have yet to find a market, such as Sakata's Japanese flat cabbage, Atlas, which is sure to find a role in the catering trade at least.
Flavour has also become a priority in the aim to attract a new generation of consumers to cabbage and sprouts, while the juicy freshness of Sakata's purple-topped white globe turnip, SC9-303, could transform the image of this underrated vegetable.
The introduction of Monarchy, a pointed cabbage but slower growing and with a little less susceptibility to frost than Duchy, means home-grown Sweetheart types could be available for eight months of the year instead of six before the Spanish crop takes over. Nickerson-Zwaan product development manager Nick Bolton says pressure on retail prices has become more important than issues such as food miles, and has held back Monarchy's uptake. But he is confident it will find its place once the recession ends: "Monarchy has been especially successful in Cornwall, where it could be cropped until Christmas."
Now Nickerson cabbage breeder Gerard Balder is working on even later material that could extend the sweetheart season into February.
In Dutchman, Nickerson has bred a Duchy variety with more intense sweetness. "We tested it three years ago and found it was no different in shape to Duchy," explains Bolton. "Then we re-tested it as a baby and noticed how much sweeter it was - it's almost a salad cabbage." Its success will, however, depend on whether it is sweet enough to be a point of difference for the supermarkets, he says.
In savoys, Balder has been concentrating on improving Xanthomonas resistance, for instance with Serpentine, for harvesting from late July to mid-October, and Jaspis, a midseason variety. "Jaspis sits right in the autumn period when infection pressure from Xanthomonas is particularly high - but it is far less susceptible," says Bolton. Both also feature short leaves for ease of overwrapping.
Balder has accessed improved Xanthomonas resistance from a round cabbage obtained from an American university. It will soon be available in Tundra types and in pointed cabbage, which is taking the longest to develop because it is genetically more distantly related to the American source.
Sweetness has also become a breeding target for Nickerson's savoys. NiZ 14-637 is a milder-flavoured early-maturing variety that, Bolton suggests, could add a dash of dark green to a stir-fry mix. The demonstration was its first appearance in the UK. "I will now put it out to trial with Lincolnshire growers to see how it performs in terms of its maturity," Bolton says.
Morama is the start of a new range from Rijk Zwaan, where savoys have been crossed with white cabbage. Brassica specialist Keith Stephen says it might appeal to markets looking for novelty. "It has a round shape but is not as dense as a white cabbage and you can tell it's a savoy from the wrinkled leaf when you cut it open," he says. "Its advantage is its sweet taste."
Sakata's new ballhead cabbage, Sennen, also has a slightly savoy leaf. From an early October planting, it is ready for late April or later if fleeced in January. "It's the first true hearted Primo-type cabbage of the season, with a fresh, sweet taste for so early in the year," says outdoor crop specialist Andy Chamberlain. Its sweetness means it is susceptible to pigeon damage, however, so could need netting.
Budena, Elsoms' new white pre-pack cabbage bred by Bejo, matures about 127 days after transplanting and is suitable for medium-term storage. "It's not as vigorous a variety as Reaction, so is the choice for better land," says crop manager Martin Strickson.
The processing variety Sircon has been bred for long-term storage. Late maturing, it will harvest up to early December.
Rijk Zwaan's Mucsuma has been in large-scale trials this year. "It is similar to Ancoma in that it is finely leaved and fills well to the base," says Stephen. It makes 2kg to 5kg heads, matures 10 to 15 days later than Ancoma and is suitable for long-term storage.
Bejo's red cabbage Kosaro has a maturity comparable to Primero, according to Strickson. "It could mature in the middle of June from a very early planting," he says.
New to Rijk Zwaan's range of red cabbage is Resima, the first true round type offered by the company. "This is a specialist pre-pack variety," says Stephen. "Its fine leaves are well layered and it has a relatively short core."
Red hybrid Nurima is fast growing, maturing in 80 days. But because it remains compact at high density, the company is going to trial it for the baby market too. "It has a round shape, so doesn't sit proud of a punnet," Stephen says. "The colour is quite pink though."
It may, however, take until the end of the recession before significant interest in baby cabbage is reignited.
Nickerson has several pointed varieties under trial to identify the best. "We could be two years too soon, because they are more expensive to produce," says Bolton.
Genetically small, the baby varieties make half the size of Duchy but they are still dense.
Nickerson now has a savoy for baby production. Bolton describes NiZ 14-608 as a breakthrough because it, too, produces the necessary density of heart while keeping its size.
Rijk Zwaan's pointed cabbage, Tourima, has a narrower base than Sonsma and is also a candidate for the baby vegetable market. "It keeps a tight head at high densities," says Stephen. Seed will be available in 2010.
One of the main breeding aims for Clause is a new generation of 90-day cauliflowers that are much more erect and narrow in the base. Development and product marketing manager John Ward says this focus is a response to growers' requests for a head shape that made for much easier bagging.
With CLX33820, the company is targeting the Aviso segment of the market. "You can easily get the knife underneath it," Ward says.
Now the company is looking to improve the shape of its 95- to 100-day types, which it finds are becoming more widely grown with 90-day varieties in order to ensure reliable separation of maturity from the same planting date. "In some years the 80-day varieties were coming in too quickly," Ward says.
Diwan, in its first commercial year, offers good cover and cold tolerance for a November to December cut. In the newly named Jubarte (formerly CLX33609), Clause now has a new variety for the tough production period of January.
Ward says this variety produced high marketable percentages in Lincolnshire even where crops were delayed following this year's cold snap. "It has a touch more vigour than Diwan," he says. "It is best planted before 25 July to make a good frame before winter."
Ward says Jubarte will replace Hermine, which is being phased out. "Jubarte is more erect with more vigour but without such a strong twist to the foliage which makes it difficult to see the curd," he explains. "Its inner leaves are very clasping and remain clean."
Still at the experimental stage is a variety for the Amistad slot, with deep curd and better foliage; one for January harvesting with good resistance to ringspot; and Scylla, an alternative to Brick.
New from Rijk Zwaan is Stabilis, previously 26-283. "It's more upright with more vigour than Dexter," says Stephen. "From trials we have done this year, it looks best suited for harvesting from July to early August."
Nickerson's summer/autumn variety, Seoul, is well suited to processing or fresh market use in mixed vegetable packs, says Bolton. "Its curds are really dense and make 40-60mm florets," he explains. "It's really taken off in Belgium, where they grow a lot for freezing."
Clause's breeding programme for broccoli/calabrese - a relatively new venture for the company - is beginning to bear fruit with CLX3503, now going by the name Sirtaki.
A first early variety for the fresh market, it needs to be sown in September for harvesting at the end of the following April. Fast maturing, it takes 60 to 63 days from planting. "We were looking for something with a good weight and clean stem," says Ward. "The stem is as important as the head in terms of costs of production. The leaves come off easily - you don't have to fight to get them off."
For the main season period, CLX3506 produces tightly domed heads of 300-350g for pre-packing but will hold if a heavier weight is needed.
"CLX3506 is small-beaded, short-branched and has good density," says Ward. It matures in 66 to 68 days, slightly ahead of standard variety Ironman.
Sakata's Pharos is a heavy variety that suits wholehead overwrapping or floretting. It is ready in 85 to 90 days from spring plantings, but can be used in a long programme.
Naxos, meanwhile, is targeted for cutting late July to the end of September. "We have been told it can take heat stress, although we haven't been able to test that here yet," says outdoor salad specialist Nigel Moore.
Santee, produced from Elsoms' joint purple-sprouting broccoli breeding programme with Bejo, has been bred for early picking - but its flexibility of harvest, for summer to autumn and spring production, is an added attraction.
Planting date trials (from mid-May) at the trials ground were demonstrating continuity of production. The company describes it as having similar characteristics to Bordeaux.
The first hybrid from Tozer Seeds' purple-sprouting programme is Red Admiral. It harvests December to January. "This is a difficult period when shoots aren't as heavy but they are prolific and uniform," says breeder Sarah Jennings.
Red Admiral was followed by the TZ 5055 variety, which harvests early to late February and is now available for grower trials. "TZ 5055 produces very dark shoots which are easy to see and pick," says Jennings.
The next wave of potential introductions, shown in demonstration plots, include TZ 7037 for late autumn cropping, a couple for mid- to late January, and TZ 7033, which has a March timing.
Much of Tozer's recent work on Brussels sprouts has been on improving early material, with Nelson (picking late August), Churchill (from end of August) and Hastings (mid-September) new in the catalogue this year. They will be joined by TZ 5059, which is also a first early.
"We're looking for a well-shaped button, nicely spaced on the stem so the water drains off, on a plant that won't lodge," says company representative David Kemp.
Meanwhile, the first-late Bitesize produces baby buttons from November but which will hold on to their small size until Christmas. Breeder Jamie Claxton is also working on a red sprout that will have the earliness and uniformity of a hybrid and a colour which runs through the whole button.
The new Nickerson variety NiZ 16-4391, aimed at the Christmas market, has been bred to bear more 28-30mm buttons per stem. That should cut the stripping time, says Bolton, at a time when packhouses are at their busiest. It matures from early December, can produce 30 per cent more sprouts than other varieties and is resilient to lodging. "This could be a good variety for Scotland because it's resistant to light leaf spot," he says.
Another coded variety, NiZ 16-4781, is also targeted for Christmas. It produces larger buttons but has a particularly mild flavour that might appeal to some consumers.
Tozer planted a demonstration of speciality brassicas that can be grown either as baby leaves or as wholeheads. "We started this breeding programme five years ago, crossing land races with interesting leaf shapes into red and Chinese cabbage," says Claxton.
For instance, TZ 8011 makes a purple-stemmed baby leaf or, if left to grow on, a red hearted cabbage.
Commercial seed of Sakata's two new red chard hybrids, BED 218 and BED 222, will be available next spring. The first coded variety is similar to Galaxy but about three days faster, while the latter variety has a darker green leaf and darker red stems and veins. It also features a mild taste.