Survivor: Berryland

They’re facing greedy insects, deadly diseases and tough foreign competition, but luckily B.C.’s berry farmers have an ally in the lab – a Q to their Bond, so to speak.

Chaim Kempler leads a team of berry researchers at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Agassiz, a federal operation supported by the berry industry whose aim is to produce the world’s tastiest and toughest berries.

Each year researchers create 20 to 60 new berry varieties by crossbreeding different types, Kempler explains. The centre only selects about one new breed every other year that merits release to commercial markets. This year, however, the centre is releasing three. The Ukee raspberry, for example, has a resistance to root rot passed down from a wild Quebec berry that was first crossbred in 1978. It was then crossed three more times before producing Ukee in 1992 and then tested for more than a decade before being released.

No berries are “genetically modified” at the centre, Kempler says; his team selectively cross-pollinates promising plants, hoping their offspring keep the best qualities. The plants are then subjected to insects and infections in a greenhouse, and the top survivors are chosen for more breeding. With hundreds of plants in different stages of the process, all needing precise tracking, berry breeders must be painstakingly devoted.

“They are just like your kids, so you’re getting attached to them,” Kempler says. “But you have to be tough; you cannot forgive for any wrongdoing. If one is not perfect, you have to eliminate it.”

David Mutz grows mostly raspberries on Berry Haven Farms Ltd.’s 30 hectares in Abbotsford and donates a row or two of his field every year to test some of Kempler’s berries. It helps him get insight on new berry varieties, he says, while advancing his industry’s R&D.

He says he’s particularly looking forward to new races of rot-resistant raspberries: “Any low spots or wet seasons, the plants just die. And when you try to plant again in that area, they just don’t seem to take.”

As far as the newest berries go, Mutz is reserving his judgment, saying there’s usually a trade-off between flavour and fortitude. “We have yet to find the perfect berry.”