Stronger Strawberries


It probably comes as little surprise that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's Strawberry Center sits in the heart of the region in which this $3 billion berry industry thrives. (Nearly 90 percent of fresh strawberries in the U.S. come from California.) Partnering with the California Strawberry Commission, the center is dedicated solely to strawberry research and education on plant pathology, automation of growing and harvesting, and controlling insects. Gerald Holmes, Ph.D., the center's director, puts it plainly: “Anything we can do to reduce labor or make growing and harvesting easier for workers is an area that we focus on."

These days, fungal diseases t​​hat kill strawberries are much on his mind, especially “now that the industry can no longer use the fumigant methyl bromide to prevent them," he says. Breeding plants with greater resistance to these pathogens (creating what's called “host plant resistance") is crucial. While Cal Poly's Strawberry Center doesn't breed the plants, it does provide vital information to the industry about which plant varieties are more resistant to disease.

Every major strawberry breeding program in the state participates in the center's robust plant-disease screening project, which has collected data on more than 800 varieties, explains Dr. Holmes. The center also hosts an annual Field Day—the state's largest event for strawberry growers—where it brings tog​ether industry players and researchers to showcase Cal Poly's results. “The industry is using this information," says Holmes. “It helps strawberry breeding programs know where to go next in developing improved disease-resistant varieties."

In addition to the key plant screening data, the center also provides essential hands-on research and learning experiences for undergraduate and graduate students. Jack Wells (shown below), a Cal Poly senior in the BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department, recently received the Strawberry Automation Research Award for his improvements to a “bug vacuum" that has been used by the industry for decades to control the lygus bug, a common strawberry pest. Wells's redesigned device has the potential to improve the efficiency of the vacuum by two- to three-fold and the California Strawberry Commission is now in the process of rolling it out to the industry, Holmes says.