An efficient food production sector adapts to consumer preferences for crops and food products. One noteworthy driver of consumer purchases is the recent increased interest and demand for local foods, i.e., food that has traveled short distances or food directly marketed by the producer (Feldmann and Hamm, 2015; Lappo et al., 2015). Consumer groups have diverse perceptions and attitudes toward local foods. Some regard local food as more environmentally friendly; others view local food as fresher, safer, healthier, and supportive of community (Carroll et al., 2013; Feldmann and Hamm, 2015; Zepeda and Leviten-Reid, 2004).
Strawberry growers in the western parts of Pacific Northwest North America (comprising Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, Canada) use similar production methods and cultivars and face similar climates. They have also been responding and adapting to changing market conditions. Historically, strawberry produced in the PNW was targeted for the processing market. However, demand for processed strawberry has declined considerably over the last several years, and this is reflected in crop production. For example, production of processed strawberry in Washington and Oregon decreased from 334,000 cwt in 2008 to 171,800 cwt in 2016 [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2018b]. Meanwhile, fresh-market strawberry has grown in importance. During the last 10 years, the value of fresh strawberry grown in Washington and Oregon increased by 142%, from a combined value of $129.5/cwt in 2006 to $313/cwt in 2016, the last year for which these data are available (USDA, 2007, 2018a). Similarly, demand for fresh strawberry continues to grow across the United States: between 1980 and 2017, the annual per capita consumption of processed strawberry increased from 1.2 to 1.8 lb, an increase of 50%, whereas fresh strawberry consumption increased from 2.0 to 8.4 lb, an increase of 321% (USDA, 2018a).
Fresh strawberry represents a high-value opportunity for PNW growers, who would benefit from the expansion of direct marketing channels such as farmers’ markets. Ostrom and Donovan (2013) found that berries were a top fresh product that Washington farmers’ market managers would like to offer at their markets. To adjust to these expanding markets, PNW strawberry growers will need to adapt their production practices, including their cultivar choices, to improve the availability of fruit for these new marketing channels.
This study evaluates PNW strawberry growers’ preferences for selected genetic traits in the context of investing in new strawberry cultivars. Only some strawberry cultivars are suitable for both fresh and processing markets; most are suitable for one or the other (Finn et al., 2014). Choice of cultivar is influenced by the environmental conditions of the production region. For example, fresh-market strawberry cultivars widely planted in California production regions are not necessarily well suited to the cooler climates of western Oregon and Washington (Finn et al., 2014). In fact, only one cultivar [Albion, which is from California (Shaw and Larson, 2005)] is currently leading fresh-market strawberry production in the PNW, and growers have expressed a desire for more diverse and adapted cultivars (personal observation). For PNW strawberry growers to successfully transition to the fresh market, they need new strawberry cultivars adapted to their growing conditions and with fruit characteristics suited to the fresh market.
Limited research has addressed the importance of strawberry attributes to various supply chain members. A handful of these studies focused on final consumer preferences for strawberry attributes. Colquhoun et al. (2012) found that freshness, flavor, texture, fruit size, and color were important attributes for U.S. consumers, and this research was focused on California and Florida cultivars. Wang et al. (2016) identified three groups of U.S. consumers that were heterogeneous in their preferences for external and internal strawberry quality attributes, indicating that ideal strawberry characteristics differ across different market segments.
One study focused on marketing intermediaries’ preferences found that size, flavor, and firmness were important strawberry attributes for packing and shipping operations (Gallardo et al., 2015). Similarly, Yue et al. (2014) found that U.S. strawberry growers as a group identified fruit firmness, flavor, and shelf life at retail as important traits for successful strawberry cultivars. They also found that California and Florida strawberry growers ranked fruit flavor as less important than growers from Michigan and Oregon, suggesting that growers’ preferences are influenced by the differences in market situations in each state.
From the perspective of breeding programs, one study found that phytonutrient content, abiotic resistance, plant habit, disease and pest resistance, and appearance were the five most important trait clusters for strawberry breeding programs (Gallardo et al., 2012). The likelihood of selecting for resistance to diseases and pests as a trait cluster for strawberry was higher than the likelihood of selecting for abiotic resistance, yield, and phytonutrient content but lower than the likelihood of selecting for appearance. Yue et al. (2012) found that breeding objectives related to consumer preferences, intended end-use markets, and available market price premiums were of lower priority for strawberry breeding programs than apple (Malus ×domestica), peach (Prunus persica), and sweet cherry (Prunus avium) breeding programs. Strawberry breeders rated feedback from nurseries and other colleagues as more important than feedback from consumers or growers when setting priorities for breeding programs. Strawberry breeders were more challenged by time limitations but less challenged by availability of genetic material, trait heritability, genetic variation, and lack of facilities than breeders of apple, peach, and sweet cherry (Yue et al., 2012).
The goal of this study was to provide information useful to breeders, extension specialists, and other research professionals about important strawberry genetic traits for the changing strawberry industry in the PNW, with an emphasis on fresh-market production. Identification of priority traits with maximum impact to the industry will inform and lead to more efficient and impactful breeding programs for this important regional crop. This study also adds to previous literature by comprehensively investigating plant- and fruit-related genetic traits that would make the ideal strawberry cultivars from the perspective of PNW growers.
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