North Carolina Strawberry Project Aspires to Make Better Berries
As the name implies, the North Carolina Strawberry Project aims to prove the tasty fruit can be used for more than just a fresh salad or as a key ingredient in a pie or cake. Plant breeding experts and culinary authorities are joining forces to strengthen many aspects of North Carolina’s agriculture economy—especially the strawberry market.
North Carolina State University’s Jeremy Pattison, the university’s specialist when it comes to strawberries, admits this project differs from his typical initiatives.
“It seemed like most of our issues we deal with are grower-preferred issues. It’s an issue with a disease or some type of environmental thing where we utilize horticultural expertise or genetics to answer a problem. I feel like we’ve done that extremely well over many years of breeding and ag research,” Pattison says.
So how is the North Carolina Strawberry Project taking a different approach?
“Growers want good fruit quality, but it’s more of a consumer issue,” Pattison says. “Let’s go in and survey consumers and ask what those traits are that impart high quality for increased consumption, increased willingness to pay premiums. And let’s take a very analytical approach to say what’s the value, who determines what it is and what traits do I need to be concerned about in a breeding program.”
To handle the project’s taste aspects, organizers brought in the Culinary Department from Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. Dean of Culinary Education Mark Allison hails from Great Britain, where he was honored by Prime Minister Tony Blair for his dedication and knowledge of cooking, as well as other elements of health and wellness.
Allison described how the Strawberry Project is connecting his colleagues and students with farmers and scientists for the first time.
“Although chefs and farmers rely heavily on each other, there is a lack of communication between our two groups,” Allison says. “Never have we gone to a farmer and told him or her that we would like a redder strawberry or a stronger onion. The partnership between Johnson & Wales and N.C. State is changing that.”
Allison and Pattison have worked together in the field and the kitchen to discuss everything from production to how to place the final touch of garnish on a dish. More collaboration is being planned to mesh together Johnson & Wales culinary students with North Carolina growers in hopes of boosting the state’s strawberry sales by more than $5 million annually.
“Educating all parties about their counterparts is what we hope will facilitate a lasting and growing relationship, which in turn would improve both industries,” Allison says.
Although the project just rolled out last September, Pattison and Allison agree it’s already gained sustained momentum.
“It’s generating a lot of awareness. That’s one of the main goals of the project,” Pattison says. “We understand the farm situation and what those challenges are. What this project is also trying to do is make linkages and grow the awareness between the consumer and the producer. Having that connection, people are seeing and getting exposed to local agriculture. These chefs of tomorrow are getting exposure putting faces with farmers’ names and faces with these products.”
And what Allison and the Johnson & Wales students can do with high-quality North Carolina strawberries has the culinary industry buzzing. Allison says strawberries are quite versatile and can be combined with various cheeses, fish and other herbs and spices to create desirable dishes.
“The longer the berry is able to stay on the vine and ripen, the better the taste. At the moment, high-quality ingredients from North Carolina are at their best in season just like any other locally grown product is. We already have a fantastic berry that comes from North Carolina, but the growing season is very short,” Allison says.
“With my students working with N.C. State and the local farmers, we will all benefit in the future—with the science behind breeding a better strawberry, the farmers growing better strawberries and Johnson & Wales students spreading the word to industry that we have the best product in the nation,” he adds.