A NEW wave of premium tier strawberries from Driscoll's Australia is set to hit shelves across the country this summer, following the success of commercial trials earlier this year.
First commercialised in the United Kingdom in 2017 Zara become an instant hit, offering consumers a stronger flavour, quality and shape of strawberry.
Arriving on Australian shores in 2018 on the back of rave reviews, two Zara plants were propagated before a test plot was planted near Launceston for trials in the local climate.
A painstaking endeavour, Driscoll's applied research manager Marius Boarta said the development process can take anywhere between six to 10 years before a new variety is "born" and available to shoppers.
"We naturally breed new berry varieties every year to improve our offering to growers and consumers," Mr Boarta said.
"We usually start with 100,000 strawberry seedlings and, each year, our experienced breeders select only 1 per cent of the seedlings to progress to the next stage (next season)."
The selection criteria is rigorous and based on the berries' flavour, shape, quality, overall yield and resistance to diseases.
Mr Boarta said Driscoll's Zara variety was chosen as it consistently performs high on the flavour and sweetness scale compared to regular strawberries.
Over the past two years, Marius and the team have refined their horticultural practice to match the plant growth habit to the local climate.
"We have planted just short of one million Zara strawberry plants this season, which will produce wonderful berries packed under Driscoll's Sweetest Batch label for Australians to enjoy," Mr Boarta said.
"As part of the variety development, we have bench-marked the Zara fruit against the current commercial varieties and validated the flavour, brix and quality before declaring it a 'Sweetest Batch' variety."
The launch of the strawberry variety into the Australian market is another feather in the cap for the company which established their Sweetest Batch blueberries five years ago to great success.
"As a business, we aim to launch the Sweetest Batch line across all four berry types. Raspberries and Blackberries are the next berries on our list," Mr Boarta said.
Mr Boarta said the Tassie team have worked tirelessly on perfecting the strawberry variety.
"[We have] trialled many growing techniques to ensure a consistent supply of flavoursome and sweet berries throughout the season," he said.
"The trials lead to refining our irrigation and fertigation practices to maximise berry flavour in this variety and understanding how best to manage plant canopy to maintain consistently high levels of brix and, therefore, the sweetness of the berries from November to May, while we produce the Sweetest Batch strawberry."
Mr Mr Boarta said the team has also developed targets and guidelines for growers to apply in the future when producing Sweetest Batch strawberries.
No stranger to the limelight, Mr Boarta was named Tasmanian Young Fruit Grower of the Year in May of 2017 before receiving his Australian citizenship later that same month.
"After 2017, my passion for growing the best berry crops and developing solutions to help the Australian berry industry increased," he said.
"Being part of such a vibrant industry and surrounded by a great team of passionate people brings out the best in everyone.
"Thinking outside the box and improving year after year, it's great."
Thinking outside the box has certainly come in handy for Mr Boarta who has had to battle more than his fair share of extreme weather events since moving to Tasmania.
"We had to adjust our growing techniques to ensure we maintain fruit quality, flavour, and overall yield. To provide consistent product quality, we had to map flavour results and determine strategies to elevate flavour at certain times of the year," he said.
The gambit has paid off with Marius assuring consumers they are in for a treat this season.
"I believe the berry shoppers will be delighted by the authentic and robust sweet flavour of our Sweetest Batch berries - it will be an experience that I am sure they will remember," he said.
While some consumers may question the need for new varieties when there are already so many options available in-store, Mr Boarta said it was essential for the future of horticulture.
"Variety development is vital in many aspects of the fresh produce industry. One of the ways to combat the more extreme weather conditions is by developing more tolerant varieties to either very high temperatures, low temperatures - or more adapted to novel growing systems," he said.
"At the same time, for farmers to maintain a healthy business in a time when the cost of production is skyrocketing, varieties that are higher yielding and more tolerant to pests and disease will alleviate some of those pressures."
Mr Boarta said the research and development team at Driscoll's focus on "all the above" and, when it came time to trial a new berry variety, Tasmania provided an "excellent location".
"The clean water, good chill in winter and mild summers make this location ideal for growing berries. In addition, the Tasmanian climate cultivates great berry flavour due to its warm, bright sunny days and cool nights," he said, adding the local growers and their teams were the backbone of the industry.
"There are challenges everywhere, but the Tasmanian growers have taken the initiative and adapted the latest global berry production systems to overcome these challenges.
"Over the years, they have mastered the skills to produce some of the best berries in the world."
- Sweetest Batch strawberries will be available nationally at select Coles, Woolworths and independent supermarkets from mid-January, 2023.
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