S&A Produce is assessing tens of thousands of strawberry plants for growing, picking and eating qualities. They were on view last month on an Institute of Horticulture (IoH) tour of the company's Hereford farm led by Douglas Mackay, IoH West Midlands and South Wales branch secretary and S&A's assistant grower.
"The aim is to get ourselves two or three varieties. We want to become self-sufficient in production so having our own varieties would be great," he said.
Managing director John Davies said the programme is borne of necessity. "There are no varieties that do what we want them to do. We're trying to find something that suits the way we want to grow."
The company currently produces some 7,000 tonnes of strawberries a year, mainly Elsanta, but this does not yield a satisfactory percentage of class one fruit, he said. "You cannot force the class one yields without the fruit getting misshapen and customer expectation on taste is better than Elsanta."
Besides taste and yield, the time at which a crop flushes is a consideration because the fruits all have to be sold a week in advance, said Mackay. Other factors include size, weight and disease resistance as well as the presentation of the trusses because"we want them to be outside the canopy".
The current phase of the breeding programme has two-and-a-half more years to run, said Mackay. "After that we may look at different areas or crop species."
Strawberry breeding - Traditional methods
S&A Produce is using traditional breeding methods and initial plant selections are largely made at the James Hutton Institute based in Dundee.
Flowers have been hand-pollinated, then the fruit is collected and dried, with the seed refrigerated before being hand-sown the next season.
"We currently have 30,000 plants that we propagated from last year and 30,000 new plants coming in this year, so we will have 60,000 plants," said S&A assistant grower Douglas Mackay. "It does take an awful lot of work to assess all of these."