When Deb Menicos walks a strawberry field, she doesn’t just look at the berries. Menicos, who holds a Ph.D. in plant breeding from Ohio State University and works as a senior scientist at Driscoll’s Inc., will often find herself counting leaves and examining the small stalks protruding from the base of the plant. These parts, known as trusses, are important because they’re where the flowers and berries grow. “We want a small plant, with compact leaves and trusses poking out—not too long, because we don’t want them to touch the dirt,” she says.
Developing a new berry variety at Driscoll’s takes at least five years. It begins with a crop of 25,000 genetically distinct plants that grow in the company’s breeding field near its headquarters in Watsonville, California. Menicos and her colleagues winnow that down first to 250 plants, then clone them and replant them, narrowing the field until they have a winner.