University of Florida developing new blueberry breeds

GAINESVILLE Fla.

On a muggy Friday afternoon, Paul Lyrene peers across a greenhouse on the University of Florida campus.

Row upon row of blueberry cuttings, each of them genetically unique, sprout up from small pots. Among these huddled masses, it’s possible Lyrene will find the next unique blueberry variety to come out of Florida.

Once Lyrene selects a blueberry, it will be cloned over and over again and then sold on the streets of London, New York and other destinations far more exotic than this humble greenhouse.

But building the better berry one that tastes good, keeps well and travels well takes time, and lots of it.

“Any berry you buy at Publix probably started out as a seed 20 years ago,” he said.

That decades-long process of research is worth it, according to officials with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The money UF earns from royalties off the sale of “cultivars” genetically unique agricultural varieties is fed back into the labs of breeders like Lyrene who keep working to grow better and better crops.

UF has steadily improved its royalty collections in recent years. With collections of $2.1 million in royalties for 2006-2007, UF more than tripled its annual collections in the space of seven years.

IFAS takes in about $80 million in external research funding from private and federal sources, so $2.1 million in royalties may not sound like that much in context. But Mark McLellan, IFAS’s dean for research, says those dollars are very important in the development of new varieties.

Traditional research funding sources, like the National Institutes of Health, typically don’t fund the development of cultivars. They’re interested in curing cancer, not making a better-tasting blueberry. As such, IFAS has to rely on royalties to fund this type of research, McLellan said.

In what McLellan describes as a unique arrangement, UF takes 70 percent of its royalties derived from cultivars and sends that money right back to the breeder to do more research. In most cases, breeders get a much smaller percentage, he said.

“There is not another state in the union that does that, and because of that we are becoming national and world leaders in cultivar development,” he said.

Blueberries alone generated more than $637,000 in royalties for UF last year, making it the top crop for the university. Lyrene has been the state’s blueberry breeder since 1977, meaning that for the past 30 years he’s been the man who selected the variety of blueberry grown across Florida in the state’s blueberry growing program. The program began in 1950, and Lyrene is just the third breeder in its history.

Lyrene, a slender and soft-spoken man, jokes that he’s “the king” when it comes to determining which berry makes the cut.

“If I like it, it’s good,” he said.

Lyrene knows a thing or two about how a blueberry should taste. He says he consumes about 100 pounds of blueberries a year, and during the peak months of testing “30 to 40 percent of my total calorie intake is blueberries.”

Once UF develops a new cultivar, like a unique blueberry, a nonprofit foundation is used to court potential private companies or individuals interested in buying the rights to it. In some cases, UF will contract with a private company or even a region of the world, granting that company the exclusive right to grow and sell its cultivar.

Up until 2006, the process UF used to hammer out royalty agreements was regarded by some as insufficiently transparent. Growers associations, who might be significantly impacted if UF gave a private company exclusive marketing rights to a variety, were not always in the loop.

UF now issues an “invitation to negotiate” to potentially interested parties anytime it seeks a royalty agreement for a new variety. This allows growers associations, companies or individuals to make counteroffers or simply counsel with UF about concerns.

Shawn Crocker, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, said UF’s more transparent methods have helped allay concerns that private companies were striking back-room deals with UF that might have an adverse affect on growers in Florida.

“It basically took the incentive away from (private companies) to wine and dine someone privately and do something secretively,” Crocker said.

Breeders like Lyrene say it’s important to keep growers happy with the process and to establish relationships of trust with them. Indeed, it’s typically the growers themselves who let UF know if another grower is selling one of its varieties without paying royalties.

But even a more transparent system won’t necessarily keep everyone happy, Lyrene said. There was a time when royalties weren’t collected by UF at all, and there are plenty of growers who miss those days.

“People that used to get things free don’t like it when you charge them one penny,” he said.

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Information from: The Gainesville Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com

– Associated Press



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