For years, many New Jersey farmers have been growing strawberry plants bred for conditions in California. The plants produced fruit that could withstand being shipped across the country but were not well suited for cold Northeast winters. Another drawback was their taste.
“In developing something that will ship well, sometimes you have a little loss of flavor,'’ said Bill Hlubik, professor and agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
“Our goal was to develop a sweet and juicy Jersey strawberry with exceptional flavor that would encourage more people to search it out and buy local,’’ Hlubik said. He was part of a team of researchers that included a Rutgers food scientist, plant biologist and agricultural agents who worked together to develop and release the new "Rutgers Scarlet" strawberry.
At the request of the state’s farmers, the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) embarked on a nearly 10-year project to develop a strawberry plant that would thrive in New Jersey’s seasonal swings between hot and cold and would also achieve a better balance between sweetness and acidity.The Rutgers Scarlet strawberry plant recently hit the market for both home gardeners and commercial growers. The new plant is being grown on test plots at more than a dozen farms around the state and will be available for sale again to the public during an August 15 open house at the EARTH Center in South Brunswick, home to the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County.
The new strawberry is the latest in a long list of plant varieties including tomatoes, asparagus and squash that the NJAES has developed to draw more customers to local markets and pick-your-own farms. The experiment station works closely with New Jersey farmers to develop plants as part of its mission to share Rutgers’ research with the public.
“You are always looking for something bigger, with more flavor and more eye appeal for the customer,’’ said Bob Von Thun, whose family runs Van Thun Farms in South Brunswick and has been working with the experiment station to test the new strawberry plant.
The Rutgers Scarlet strawberry is being grown in limited quantities this spring and may be found at some of the state’s pick-your-own farms, although it will be scarce. It is expected to be more widely available next year and customers will discover what sets it apart. The new strawberry is well suited for the state’s growers because it was developed to be eaten soon after it’s picked and does not have to withstand cross-country shipping.“We are looking for something that is going to be really flavorful and make people say ‘Wow, why did I ever bother with strawberries from the supermarket?’’ Von Thun said. “When you eat a Jersey strawberry picked that day, compared to a California strawberry that was probably picked three weeks ago, there is a huge difference.’’
The Rutgers Scarlet – the first in a series of more flavorful strawberry varieties NJAES plans to release – was developed through a traditional cross-breeding program led by Gojko Jelenkovic, a retired plant biology professor. He has been working for 20 years to develop a better tasting strawberry and has tested hundreds of varieties. The variety that became the Rutgers Scarlet (a trademarked name) was selected for further development because it was considered one of the best in Jelenkovic’s program.
Perfecting a new breed of plant takes several years into order to identify and select some of the outstanding desired characteristics.
“Since developing better flavor was the top priority, the Rutgers Scarlet strawberry has undergone hundreds of formal and informal taste tests,’’ said Peter Nitzsche, associate professor and agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. What sets the scarlet strawberry apart is its solid balance of sweetness and acidity, he said.
“If you have something that is only sweet it can be bland, but the combined sweetness and acidity is what really creates that excitement on your tongue,’’ Nitzsche said.
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