Mar 13, 2023Grower has faith in Duchess Blueberries
Greg Willems first became fascinated by plant genetics as a student at California State University-Fresno in 1998, while studying under noted plant science professor Earl Bowerman. Bowerman, in turn, learned from Rutger University’s Arlen Draper, who was also a longtime U.S. Department of Agriculture blueberry breeder.
That prompted Willems, whose family had been growing California raisins for almost a century, to switch to blueberries. Since then, he has grown his operation to about 500 acres, marketing them under the Farm to Table label with his wife, Monica.
In 2019, Willems returned to his longtime interest in genetics, opening California Berry Genetics, a Selma, California, nursery. Through that venture, he became involved with yet another well-known breeder in the blueberry world: the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Scott NeSmith.
NeSmith has since retired, but Willems continues to work with the UGA berry breeding program and has big plans to ramp-up production of NeSmith’s Duchess series of blueberries, eventually licensing growers in California, then throughout the U.S. and internationally. His goal is to provide year-round availability of the Duchess varieties within four years, mostly marketed through his Farm to Table brand.
So far, Willems has replaced 150 acres of his berries with the Duchess varieties, with plans to fully transition in three years. Through an agreement with UGA, California Berry Genetics has exclusive rights to the berries in California, although Willems has plans to sub-license with select growers, who will pack under the Farm to Table brand.
He describes the three varieties:
Early Duchess — Has the same production window as popular variety Snowchaser, but fruit is larger, averaging 19-24 mm, with a later bloom that lessens the need for frost control.
Sweet Duchess — A medium to large berry which Willems describes as possessing “amazing aroma and aftertaste.” The variety is “one of the best berries I’ve eaten in my life,” Willems said.
Blue Duchess — With an upright plant and narrow crown, this variety lends itself to mechanical harvesting. The fruit is crispy and “buyers love it.” Willems plans to replace all of his Suziblues with Blue Duchess. Because citrus thrips tend to avoid it, the variety has the potential to become popular among organic growers, he said.
Willems said he’s confident the berries will please retailers and consumers, but just as important, growers will find the plants are not difficult to take care of.
“One thing that Scott (NeSmith) does vs. a lot of other breeders, he always tells me ‘I don’t baby the plants. They’ve got to make it on their own, they’ve got to survive’,” Willems said. “A lot of breeders just look for fruit quality. That’s important, but (NeSmith) looks for fruit quality and grower-friendly plants that will last in the field and give you high production.”
Ramping up production
Willems started planting Duchess berries two years ago, and this is the first year for commercial production in California. Willems said limited supplies will be available in some stores, including Sprouts Farmers Market, WalMart and Costco.
While he doesn’t expect Duchess to lead to a significant acreage expansion in California or across the U.S., he does believe growers will opt for the plant’s hardiness and berries’ flavor, convincing them to remove other varieties and plant Duchess varieties.
California Berry Genetics is producing about 750,000 Duchess plants in one-liter pots, and a maximum production goal in four years is 8 million to 10 million plants, Willems said.
“Our goal is to have a series of varieties we can provide to all the retailers, and we’re looking to have production on the East Coast, the West Coast, South America, Morocco, Spain and Mexico,” Willems said.
“My goal is to work with small- and mid-sized growers,” he said. “I want them to have equal access to genetics. That’s so important to me.”