The Angus Breeding Programme was set up by Scottish berry specialist Angus Soft Fruits in the mid-1990s to provide a point of difference in the products supplied by the company to leading supermarkets across the UK. Since the first premium AVA strawberry was developed, the initiative has gone from strength to strength; releasing further notable varieties under the AVA Berries banner, including AVA Rosa, AVA Star and AVA Blush. PBUK takes a closer look at how the Angus Breeding Programme operates, and the varietal innovation that buyers can expect to see in the near future.
The primary aim of the programme is to bring new berries to the market that have improved flavour, appearance, shelf-life, disease resistance and yield in comparison to existing varieties.
Currently, Angus Soft Fruits has a “very strong” varietal portfolio and development pipeline in the works, according to new AVA Berries head breeder Lucy Slatter, who tastes up to 20 berries a day in search of the best-looking and tastiest fruit.
“This year, in particular, our June bearer selections, short-day strawberry selections and floricane raspberries have been exceptional,” Slatter reveals to PBUK. “These advanced selections are in the process of being multiplied so that growers and retailers will get a chance to really judge their performance next season. It is an exciting time and a fantastic position in which to be, with so many promising varieties ready for release in the next few years.”
The trials are located at a purpose-built breeding station near Evesham in England. There is a further trial site in Scotland, as well as the south of Spain and the Netherlands, which are all strategic production areas for the company’s varieties.
“As we are not only breeding varieties for English growers, we have extensive trials at our head office in Arbroath,” Slatter explains. “The unique climate there allows us to select varieties that are suited to the Scottish east coast’s growing conditions. As a variety reaches commercialisation we start larger on-farm trials throughout our network of growers.”
Slatter works alongside Research Director David Griffiths, who is one of the founders of Angus Soft Fruits, which was established in 1994 on the north-east coast of Scotland by a large berry-growing family. The duo are supported by a dedicated breeding team with superior knowledge in their field. At peak times, the team relies on seasonal workers and students to support its activities.
As a fully-integrated business, the decision-making process also receives input from the growers, agronomists, technologists, commercial and marketing teams who work across the entire Angus Soft Fruits business.
“This results in highly-focused crosses and selections to meet market needs,” points out Slatter. “We think this puts us in a unique position to develop varieties which we are confident that growers want to grow, retailers want to stock and consumers want to buy.”
Additionally, the programme works with a number of organisations and research institutes to support its work. At the moment, there are a couple of exciting projects lined up, and the company is looking forward to sharing more details in the coming months.
The purpose of all this collaboration is to amass an understanding of the challenges that everyone faces by remaining in constant contact with people across the industry, both in-house and externally. “Conversations with people on the front line, such as pickers and packhouse staff, can be just as important as talking to buyers when it comes to understanding future challenges,” Slatter points out.
“The retail partners with whom we work are fantastically supportive of what we do, and their input into our programme really is so valuable,” she continues. “Our desire to only breed berries of the highest quality gives retailers a unique opportunity to shape how their products will look now and in the future.”
Importantly, Slatter claims the team truly understands what makes a good berry from both the retailer and grower perspectives. Taste is a big target considering that Angus Soft Fruits strives to be a market leader in the premium quality tier. Shelf-life is another trait which is evaluated as strictly as possible since improvements in shelf-life benefit the whole supply chain.
“Our berries are targeted at the premium tier so we have high standards to meet, especially on appearance, taste and shelf-life,” Slatter comments. “We really want consumers to enjoy our berries and make a repeat purchase because they have enjoyed the flavour. We try to achieve this whilst also making sure it is profitable for our growers to grow.”
Slatter says flavour is one of the trickiest traits to analyse because it is highly subjective. In addition to destructive lab techniques, taste is first assessed within the breeding team. If it passes this first test, the wider business is invited to formally assess the fruit.
“This gives us the confidence that our fruit tastes good,” Slatter states. “However, we strive to make sure our varieties meet premium specifications so we go much further in assessing flavour. We set up sampling with retailers and growers whilst also conducting official tasting panels.”
Disease resistance is another important trait for new varieties bred through the programme in an effort to reduce the usage and dependence on pesticides. As such, the team selects out susceptible material as early as possible. “Breeding plays such an important role in meeting sustainability targets on the farm, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” Slatter notes.
The programme therefore is spending much more time looking at disease resistance, including to phytophthora (root rot) and mildew. “These areas contribute to the economic viability of a variety on the farm, and so they become more and more important each year,” she says.
With each season of testing, the team adds stricter criteria across more and more traits. For example, another big challenge currently for the industry is the cost of picking. As such, the breeding team assesses all of its material in terms of ease of picking, including fruit presentation, fruit size and how well the berries come away from the plant.
Labour of love
It is a rigorous selection process that takes place over a number of years. In the early stages, the programme starts with thousands of different genotypes across the different crop habits. Over subsequent growing seasons, these are whittled down to leave anywhere between one and 10 of the best lines.
“It is a big investment to continue with a line at this advanced stage so we have to be sure we think it has potential,” Slatter points out. “That’s why we encourage both the growers and retailers to see our fruit and give us any feedback they can. Their input is so important to us, and helps ensure that our varieties are suitable for the commercial market.”
Of course, breeding is a labour of love. The crossing combinations made now by the Angus Breeding Programme are unlikely to be seen on a supermarket shelf for at least seven years.
“We have a very quick and efficient breeding process so we can identify a new variety within four years, but it takes time to multiply and get the backing from growers and retailers,” Slatter notes. “That’s why we aim to involve both the retailers and growers in our process as early as possible.”
With this in mind, and even as breeding methods evolve and adapt at a fast pace, Angus Soft Fruits believes its breeding programme remains “industry leading”.
“Digitalisation has been an important aspect for us to handle the vast amounts of data we generate each year on our material,” Slatter explains. “Molecular breeding tools are also becoming an integral part of many breeding programmes, and ours is no different.”