How Driscoll’s Reinvented the Strawberry

The berry behemoth turned produce into a beauty contest, and won.

Strawberry season is fast approaching. Hopefully, you have already planted your berries. Possibly blossoms have developed and you can see the little green berry. Do you know the type of strawberry you have planted? Are they June-bearers, Everbearers or Day Neutral? Or will you just wait until you see a bright red berry and hope to get it picked before the robins? The answer to this question and anything else you would like to learn about this amazing fruit can be found in OSU’s publication, Growing Strawberries in Your Home Garden, EC 1307. As for ‘reinventing the strawberry’, this quote from the article caught my attention. “Produce is war, and it is won by having something beautiful-looking to sell at Costco when the competition has only cat-faced uglies.” Following are excerpts from the article reprinted from the August 21, 2017 edition of the New Yorker. The entire article can be read here.

By Dana Goodyear August 14, 2017

Driscoll’s relentless focus on breeding has helped shape the supermarket strawberry.

One foggy May morning, the Joy Makers, a team of scientists employed by Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company, gathered at its research-and-development campus, which is known as Cassin Ranch, in the small agricultural town of Watsonville, on California’s Central Coast. Before them was a table laden with plastic clamshells: red, white, and pink strawberries for the pipeline. Phil Stewart, an affably geeky, sandy-haired strawberry geneticist, offered me a yellowish-white specimen with rosy stains, like a skinned knee when the blood starts seeping through. The Joy Makers watched expectantly as I tasted it. The fruit, an unpatented variety referred to as 21AA176, was juicy and soft, mildly astringent but tropical, reminiscent of white tea. “It goes back to a variety called White Carolina, which is maybe the oldest strawberry variety still in existence,” Stewart said. “It dates back to the seventeen-hundreds.”

In some Asian markets, white fruit is coveted, and Driscoll’s has conducted commercial trials in Hong Kong. But although the company has been breeding whites for fifteen years, it has yet to introduce any to U.S. grocery stores; Americans, accustomed to an aggressive cold chain, typically fear underripe fruit. “I brought these to a wedding, and all the parents were telling their kids not to eat the white ones,” a Joy Maker remarked. Lately, however, Driscoll’s focus groups have shown that millennials, adventurous and open-minded in their eating habits, and easily seduced by novelty, may embrace pale berries. With these consumers, unburdened by preconceived notions of what a white berry should look or taste like, Driscoll’s has a priceless opportunity: the definitional power that comes with first contact. Before that can happen, though, the berries must conform to Driscoll’s aesthetic standards. Stewart held a 21AA176 up to his face and inspected it carefully. “Microcracking,” he said, pointing out some barely perceptible brown spots, caused by moisture on the plastic packaging, that were marring the surface. “This is not going to go forward.”

Driscoll’s, a fourth-generation family business, says that it controls roughly a third of the six-billion-dollar U.S. berry market, including sixty per cent of organic strawberries, forty-six per cent of blackberries, fourteen per cent of blueberries, and just about every raspberry you don’t pick yourself. Miles Reiter is the chairman; his family owns some seventy per cent of the company, which develops proprietary breeds, licenses them exclusively to approved Driscoll’s growers, and sells the fruit under one of the few widely recognizable brand names in the fresh section of the grocery store. Though the farming is technically outsourced, the Reiters also own a farming company, run by Miles’s brother Garland, which grows about a third of Driscoll’s fruit. “We’re commonly referred to as the Evil Empire,” Allison Reiter Kambic, one of Miles’s daughters, told me ruefully. “They’re the leaders,” Herb Baum, who for decades led the berry coöperative Naturipe, said. “I regret to say, as I worked for a competitor.” At ninety, Baum is retired, but when he tells people that he worked in strawberries and they say, “Oh, Driscoll’s?” he knows just how Salieri felt.

Produce is war, and it is won by having something beautiful-looking to sell at Costco when the competition has only cat-faced uglies. In the eighties, beset by takeover ambitions from Chiquita, Del Monte, and Dole, Driscoll’s embarked on a new vision: all four berries, all year round. Otherwise, Miles told me, “we could be outflanked.” Driscoll’s berries are grown in twenty-one countries and sold in forty-eight; since the nineties, the company has invested heavily in Mexico. Driscoll’s sells more than a billion clamshells every year; it was Driscoll’s idea to put berries into clamshells in the first place. At the corporate offices, in a business park a few miles from Cassin Ranch, interactive maps mounted on the walls monitor every truck carrying Driscoll’s fruit in North America, some two hundred and fifty at any given time. An alarm goes off if a truck’s temperature deviates from an accepted range, if a truck stops for too long (in Las Vegas, for instance), or if security is breached. A full load of strawberries is worth about fifty thousand dollars; blueberries garner twice as much. The maps resemble battle plans, with armies of trucks fanning out across the continent.

Strawberries can be orange or white, the size of a pinkie tip, oblong, conjoined or bloblike, ecstatic, defiant, ungainly, unique. But you don’t think of them that way. What you picture is a Driscoll’s berry: glossy, red, and heart-shaped, and firm enough to ship to the East Coast or to the Middle East and eat two weeks past the harvest date. Driscoll’s berries tend to lack the sugar rush and perfumed oomph of a tiny sun-warmed heirloom discovered on a country lane. Since the company’s inception, it has placed an emphasis on appearance. “We have helped shape what a strawberry looks like with our relentless focus,” Soren Bjorn, the company’s president, said. Its cultivars—the genetically distinct new varieties it creates through breeding—and the germplasm, the genetic library of plants its breeders can draw on as parents for future cultivars, constitute the company’s intellectual property. Speaking with a legal newspaper, Driscoll’s senior vice-president and general counsel compared the company to its neighbors in Silicon Valley. “Growers are sort of like our manufacturing plants,” he said. “We make the inventions, they assemble it, and then we market it, so it’s not that dissimilar from Apple using someone else to do the manufacturing but they’ve made the invention and marketed the end product.” Like Apple, Driscoll’s guards its I.P. jealously.

Berries are the top-grossing produce in the supermarket. (“I remember when we were little and berries surpassed bananas in revenue,” Brie Reiter Smith, Miles’s oldest daughter, who is the general manager of North American production, said.) According to Frances Dillard, Driscoll’s global brand strategist and a veteran of Disney’s consumer-products division, berries are the produce category most associated with happiness. (Kale, in contrast, has a health-control, “me” focus.) On a slide that Dillard prepared, mapping psychographic associations with various fruits, strawberries floated between Freedom and Harmony, in a zone marked Extrovert, above a word cloud that read “Social, pleasure, joy, balance, conviviality, friendship, warmth, soft, natural, sharing.” (Blueberries vibed as status-oriented, demanding, and high-tech.) As I studied the slide over Dillard’s shoulder in her office, she smiled tightly and said, “This is proprietary.” More

Dana Goodyear is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the host of the podcast “Lost Hills.”

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