By Dee Shore
This story was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.
As Jeremy Pattison works to build a better strawberry for North Carolina, the N.C. State University plant breeder isn’t focusing solely on what would make a new cultivar attractive to farmers.
Through a unique arrangement with a leading culinary school, he’s also looking closely at traits that might matter most to consumers – things such as flavor, color, size and texture.
Pattison is at the center of the N.C. Strawberry Project, a joint venture of N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis and Johnson & Wales University, an internationally recognized culinary institution with a campus in Charlotte.
Funded by a grant from Golden LEAF, a nonprofit organization devoted to strengthening North Carolina’s economy, the strawberry project is believed to be the first project to connect university plant breeders, researchers and producers with the culinary world.
Through the one-year project, Pattison is gathering information he hopes will lead to a tastier strawberry that’s especially suited to North Carolina’s growing conditions. “We want a North Carolina brand that is clearly different than those that were developed for the mass market,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to increase the economic value and impact of N.C. strawberries while enhancing the eating experience.”
If all goes well, the varieties that Pattison comes up with will also extend North Carolina’s strawberry harvest season, which typically lasts five to eight weeks in April and May.
Project organizers are hoping that they can help grow the market for N.C. strawberries 25 percent, to about $26 million annually, through efforts involving research, education and outreach.
Pattison and other project leaders — food microbiologist Dr. Jim Oblinger and communications specialist Leah Chester-Davis — said that students and faculty at Johnson & Wales are giving the university valuable information about what culinary professionals and high-end restaurants look for in strawberries.
Because chefs can serve as intermediaries between farmers and consumers, their insight can be especially valuable, Chester-Davis said.
To gather and analyze their feedback on their preferences, N.C. State University hired Sensory Spectrum, which is also based at the N.C. Research Campus. The company conducts research into how consumers experience food and other products. In May, it led tests with produce buyers, chefs, JWU students and faculty and consumers.
Having Sensory Spectrum’s input in the early stages of a breeding program distinguishes the effort from traditional university breeding projects. Pattison said it could ultimately amplify the edge that North Carolina strawberry growers have when it comes to meeting local needs — and possibly lead to more national interest in North Carolina-grown strawberries.
“I feel that land-grant university research and extension has an excellent track record addressing the needs of the farmer,” Pattison said. “In this project, we are taking a more systematic approach to breeding fruit for quality — for consumer-preferred traits.”
The project has other goals, as well: Through a series of farm tours, it is helping tomorrow’s chefs and their instructors better understand the science and business of food production — particularly as it relates to local agriculture.
Oblinger, who is in charge of the project’s educational component, said that at the start of the project, JWU students were asked what industry leads North Carolina’s economy.
“They thought that banking is the leading industry, and information technology is up there,” Oblinger said. “But they think agriculture is not really all that important to the economy of North Carolina.”
The project teaches those students that agriculture and agribusiness — food, fiber and forestry — is actually the leader, generating $70 billion in value-added income for North Carolina each year. And strawberries — seen as a high-risk but also high-value alternative to tobacco — are an increasingly important part of that. North Carolina ranks fourth among the states in terms of the amount of strawberries produced, and most of them are sold locally.
The message was reinforced as the students travelled to local farms, met local farmers and saw university research at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury. Chef Mark Allison, the dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte and one of the project’s leaders, said that having this familiarity with local agriculture will help the students in their culinary careers.
In addition to enhancing the JWU students’ education and laying the groundwork that will lead to a better N.C. strawberry, the project also has a public education component, led by Extension media specialist Chester-Davis. She and her team of Kristen Bright and Justin Moore developed a website and a Facebook page for the N.C. Strawberry Project and have worked with news media representatives locally and nationwide to tell them about the project, to promote the students’ award-winning recipes and to spread the word that buying local produce guarantees the freshest product and keeps more food dollars in the local community.