Strawberry (Fragaria ananassa Duch. Ex Rozier) is an important fruit crop to the U.S. economy. From 2000 to 2010, U.S. strawberry production averaged 1.1 million metric tons on 20,904 ha and was worth $1.5 billion annually. Eighty-one percent of the strawberries were used fresh, whereas 19% were processed (U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2013). From 2000 to 2010, the top production states were California (1 million t), Florida (95,000 t), Oregon (14,000 t), North Carolina (10,000 t), Washington (7,000 t), and Michigan (4,800 t) (U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2013). Over the last 10 years, the production and value of strawberries have steadily increased. In 2002, the U.S. strawberry production was at 1.0 million t valued at $1.2 billion, whereas in 2012, production was at 1.5 million t valued at $2.4 billion (U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2013). New cultivar development and commercialization are essential to promote the industry’s long-term economic sustainability. In fact, since 2006, 74 new strawberry plant cultivars have been released in the United States (U.S. Department of Commerce, Patent and Trademark Office, 2013).
This research is a portion of a larger U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded project called “RosBREED: Enabling marker-assisted breeding in Rosaceae.” The overall goal of RosBREED is to facilitate the use of DNA marker-assisted breeding in Rosaceae fruit crops to improve the efficiency of plant breeding programs. There has been an increase in the successful use of this technology for crop improvement programs in the recent past (e.g., for improving product quality, management practice efficiency, and product uniformity) (Iezzoni et al., 2010). However, the application of the technology requires extensive training, knowledge, and resources. Hence, it is critical to focus on the genetic traits of maximum value (Alpuerto et al., 2009; Luby and Shaw, 2001). Determining trait valuation is difficult, and only a few horticultural studies have evaluated trait priorities of the entire supply chain starting from breeders and ending with consumers (Zimmerman and Van der Lans, 2009). The goal of this study was to assess strawberry producers’ preferences for strawberry fruit and plant quality traits. Investigations of the trait priorities of other supply chain groups are ongoing.
Published research explaining how strawberry producers select cultivars and determine the value of traits is scarce. Most research on the importance of strawberry traits to producers focuses on characteristics that improve postharvest quality and yield. For instance, Jamieson et al. (2000) found that fruit firmness and skin toughness improved postharvest quality by reducing bruising. Additional characteristics that impacted postharvest quality are achene color, berry size, surface gloss, and surface color (Jamieson et al., 2000). Differences in fruit chemical composition by cultivar have also been explored (Kafkas et al., 2007). Masny et al. (2005) investigated strawberry genotypes by examining the marketable yield, fruit weight, susceptibility to gray mold [Botrytis cinerea (De Bary) Whetzel], fruit color, and fruit firmness of the different genotypes. Gawronski (2011) analyzed the impact of strawberry characteristics on yield and found a positive correlation between yield and the number of fruits, inflorescences, and crowns. All of these traits impact postharvest quality and marketable yield. Although postharvest quality and yield impact overall product quality and commercial viability, no prior study of strawberry producers’ preferences for plant and fruit quality traits has been conducted.
Strawberries have long been of interest to Rosaceae fruit breeders. Strawberries are different from other commercially produced rosaceous fruits in that they are herbaceous perennials, grown in many production regions as an annual crop, with a short reproductive cycle (Qin et al., 2008). Research demonstrated that goals of strawberry breeding programs were highly influenced by geographical location and end market needs (Capocasa et al., 2008; Hancock et al., 2008; Khanizadeh et al., 1992; Whitaker et al., 2011). Khanizadeh et al. (1992) reported that a breeding program in Quebec, Canada, used the following selection criteria when evaluating strawberry cultivars: high yield, suitability for mechanical harvesting (raised neck, elevated sepals, shape, skin texture, interior and exterior color, size, and firmness), suitability for processing (flavor, texture, organic acids, and sugars), root and foliar disease resistance, resistance to herbicides, and hardiness. Capocasa et al. (2008) found that the nutritional value of strawberries was an important consideration for both fresh and processed strawberries. Hancock et al. (2008) presented an overview of breeding objectives for different parts of the world and for both fresh and processing markets. Overall, these studies give some insights to breeders’ preferences; however, a systematic investigation of producers’ value of strawberry traits would assist in breeders’ selection of traits and improve the efficiency of breeding programs.
The objective of this study is to assess U.S. strawberry producers’ preferences for strawberry fruit and plant traits by analyzing how producers categorize the relative importance of these traits. A secondary objective is to compare these results with published reports on consumers’ preferences for strawberries. There is potential for strawberry breeders and supply chain groups to use this information while selecting important traits to target when breeding new strawberry cultivars.
Although this study focused on producers’ preferences for strawberry plant and fruit traits, it is crucial to be aware of consumers’ preferences for strawberries because they drive demand. The following discussion introduces some of the existing research on consumer preferences for strawberries (Colquhoun et al., 2012; Ford et al., 1996; Keutgen and Pawelzik, 2007; Lado et al., 2010). Ford et al. (1996) determined that flavor, sweetness, and juiciness were the most important strawberry attributes to consumers. Keutgen and Pawelzik (2007) found that consumers were less willing to purchase strawberries with low soluble solids content. Lado et al. (2010) ran a sensory panel and found that consumers preferred a sweeter, firmer strawberry cultivar. Overall, flavor and texture were quality traits important to consumers. However, for producers, other fruit and plant characteristics were also important because they ultimately influence the ability to grow salable produce. Colquhoun et al. (2012) determined sweetness and complex flavors were the most important strawberry fruit attributes to consumers, whereas health benefits were of little importance.
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