IFG cherry orchard

May 2, 2022
IFG adds cherry focus to influence industry progression

International Fruit Genetics (IFG) breeding programs could change the cherry growing industry and help it adapt to a changing climate.

The fruit breeding company’s new low-chill cherries could change how growers grow cherries and drive demand by adapting to new consumer preferences.

Known for its Cotton Candy and Sweet Globe table grape varieties, the Bakersfield, California-based IFG is giving more attention to cherries.

Alwyn van Jaarsveld
Alwyn van Jaarsveld, International Fruit Genetics (IFG) international commercial cherry manager, breeds low-chill sweet cherries to help growers adapt to dryer and warmer growing conditions. Photos: IFG

“Cherries are such a special fruit,” said Alwyn van Jaarsveld, IFG’s international commercial cherry manager. “It’s something that takes a lifetime to get right.”

Compared to other fruits, like apples, cherry production is smaller, with a corresponding focus on breeding programs.

“Cherries pale in comparison,” said van Jaarsveld. “But, they’re a very interesting fruit. They’re definitely high-end. They are something that appeals to consumers. Not children, but adult consumers.”

Because of consumer excitement generated by cherries each season and their ability to attract eyes in the fruit aisle, van Jaarsveld calls cherries a “magnetic fruit.”

“If it’s on the shelf, people will go to them and have a look at what’s there, looking at the price and seeing what they can afford to buy,” he said.

IFG has released 10 commercial sweet cherry varieties. That’s dwarfed by the 35 it has released for table grapes. IFG is testing about 40 different types of cherry varieties. Commercially, about five times that many breeds are grown.

Changing climate

As Southern California’s climate becomes increasingly warmer and dryer, growing cherries becomes even more challenging.

IFG’s low-chill cherry varieties will perform better in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley, where temperatures aren’t as low as those near Sacramento, California, and other northern areas. Temperatures in Sacramento are lower longer than around Bakersfield, where summer temperatures last longer.

“The cherry tree needs to survive both,” said van Jaarsveld, who joined IFG in October 2021. “It needs to be able to produce good fruit with lower amounts of chill and also be able to withstand high temperatures without affecting the next fruit of the next season, doubling, as they call it, when the sutures aren’t normal, so the fruit doesn’t look right.”

Such changes affect tree reserves, producing lower yields in successive crops.

Drought, higher temperatures and longer summers could prevent cherry orchards that are 10 to 15 years old from producing quality fruit from non-low-chill varieties.

“The varieties that have been working for you the last 25 to 30 years may not be working as well anymore,” said van Jaarsveld. “You have to replace them with something able to withstand a little more heat in the summer and more cold in the winter. Otherwise, you will have one good, one bad and one medium crop. You don’t want to farm like that. It will put you out of business.”

With commercial pressures pressing growers, adaptability is particularly critical today.

“If the trees have no fruit, it’s not something they can farm,” he said. “The trees get to be very expensive.”

Cherries at IFG are bred for varietal characteristics
Cherries at IFG are bred for varietal characteristics such as brix, flavor, firmness and crunchiness. Photo: IFG

Low-chill necessity

Low-chill varieties are important because California and other growing regions have seen higher temperatures and more wildfires over the last 10 years than during the previous decade.

“The climate is drying and water is becoming scarcer,” said van Jaarsveld.

In states like California that produce many crops but are also home to large populations, the question of choosing water for people over food production may arise.

Cherries need much less water than other fruit, including citrus and avocados, yet remain highly profitable for growers, said van Jaarsveld.

“This means a grower can earn the same money using less water,” he said. “It’s important to look at your primary constraint. Is it land or water? In the future, it will be water. When you look at income per-acre or per-gallon, cherries become much more interesting.”

The expected lifetime of a cherry orchard planted today is 15 to 20 years. Five years into it, when the orchard begins full production, growers won’t want to pull trees and plant another crop because the grove isn’t producing quality fruit. Growers, said van Jaarsveld, want crops that are adapted to changing climates.

Longtime cherry dedication

When David Cain started IFG in 2001, his interest in growing cherries in warmer environments put him ahead of the curve as that type of breeding wasn’t as big a focus in global breeding programs, said van Jaarsveld. Cain made cherries a part of the company’s DNA out of the starting blocks.

Today, breeding programs across the globe concentrate on low-chill cherry varieties. To avoid gluts in the middle of the season, breeders want to develop cherries that supply fruit slightly earlier and slightly later than during the season, said van Jaarsveld.

He points to Bing, a cherry variety bred in 1875 and still in use. It shows how the industry could have bred more varieties a long time ago, said van Jaarsveld.

RELATED: Fruit breeding company IFG marks its 20th anniversary

Varieties must work for growers and shippers. To ensure its cherry varieties can withstand the rigors of shipping and make it to the market in good condition, IFG typically tests varieties for 40 days. In addition to their firmness, if they don’t look well and taste great, the varieties won’t pass. If a variety is fresh, but 10 days later becomes flabby, it’s useless.

IFG wants people to become excited about buying cherries, which creates demand and ultimately drives plantings. “You have to breed something that is able to be grown,” said van Jaarsveld. “An all-rounder. The variety needs to pitch and bat.”

IFG doesn’t want “just another cherry,” he said. “We want something that’s sweet, crunchy, flavorful, yummy and delicious.”

Stable taste breeding

While companies breed other fruits for nontraditional tastes, like Cotton Candy grapes or grapes that taste like lychees or mangoes, van Jaarsveld said cherries won’t likely see much of that kind of variation.

cherry bloom in IFG orchard
While companies breed other fruits for nontraditional tastes, such as Cotton Candy grapes, IFG’s international commercial cherry manager said consumers want cherries that taste like cherries. Photo: IFG

“That’s something people can say is fun, but they want a cherry tasting like a cherry,” he said. “It has to be really good. They’re not looking for something that tastes like a kiwi.”

IFG’s cherries typically have the classic cherry taste, though there are some differences. Some varieties are more fruity while others possess a more classic cherry taste. Some are darker, with hints of dark chocolate or port wine, possessing deep and dark red colors, said van Jaarsveld.

Though IFG doesn’t use GMOs in its breeding, that doesn’t mean it avoids modern breeding technology. Breeders can understand genomes and recognize the markers and breed for firmness, disease resistance, taste and appearance and also review the plant’s DNA. Though the technique was available 20 years ago, it was cost-prohibitive or unavailable for private breeding companies, he said.

More affordable technology has changed breeding. It’s made breeding programs a lot smarter, said van Jaarsveld.

“We can now use technology instead of having to breed, evaluate, breed, evaluate,” he said. “The cycle time is slightly better. We can breed with better attributes in mind.”

—  Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor


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