An in-depth look into breeding programs, Canadian Vineland explains process

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An in-depth look into breeding programs, Canadian Vineland explains process

Vineland Research and Innovation Center's philosophy is based in doing research that truly makes a difference for the horticulture industry. That means that it takes very seriously the relationships it has with partnering businesses and organizations.

Amy Bowen leads the consumer insight research team at Vineland and helped us at understand how the Ontario-based center innovates new varieties, strategically appeals to consumers and generates solutions for fruit and vegetable agriculture in the region.

The horticultural research center - established in 2007 - was created in response to an industry desire to continue centering research in the production sector. By having research-centered production, local and national Ontario partners are able to tackle challenges and ensure that consumers will respond well to new varieties.

In its "innovation hub", which consists of a campus of 250 acres of land on three farms, researchers both from Vineland and its public and private partners work to innovate on everything from greenhouse design and variety development to in-field harvest technology and market research.

The underlying creed of Vineland is its desire to "create impact for the sector". Its key efforts in working alongside stakeholders and industry leaders to keep up with changing consumer preferences and innovative technology.

"We're not about doing research for the sake of research, but research identified problems and needs to be able to create - whether that be new varieties or new technologies - new information that the industry can use to help them move forward and be successful," she explained.

When Vineland partners with companies, they like to "sit down and have a conversation with them about what they're trying to achieve", Bowen detailed. In this way, what the research the teams do is "very customizable" and always tailored to the specific preferences of those they're working with in the industry.

That applies both "locally, nationally and internationally" to maximize benefits for fruit, vegetable and flower production. Bowen said that their partnerships could look very different depending on the needs of partners, saying that "if it fits under the realm of horticulture", the team will try most anything to find how they fit into helping companies and organizations.

Getting into the details of an apple breeding program by gauging consumer interest

What we were interested in was what the inner-workings of a fruit variety breeding program looked like. Vineland outlined how it went through the consumer insight side of things entails.

Apple breeding programs have the "longest pipeline" when it comes to development times. So, Bowen spoke about Vineland's apple breeding program which began in 2011 to best illustrate the innovation center's efforts. What the industry noticed was that "globally, nationally and locally" the apple market was changing - beginning when Honeycrisp variety shook things up in markets.

So, this drove interest in developing a locally adapted variety in Ontario. To respond to this need, Vineland's apple program got to work. While the variety development research area is different from consumer insights in the center, the two work closely to get the job done.

Here, Bowen specifically outlined what steps the consumer insights research group took to move along the apple breeding program.

"If we're putting all of this research into it, we really need to understand who the market is, what they're looking for, how to create value differentiation to get things out there," she said when referring to the role of consumer insights at Vineland.

That includes "the taste, the flavor, the appearance, but also factors like price, region of origin and understanding how all of these things come into play".

So, how did the apple breeding program work? First, the consumer insights team looked at what the apple market looked like so that Vineland could find what it could offer - it wanted to create something new for the shopper while also adhering to exactly what the market wanted in terms of taste.

With that goal in mind, the team "got a big group of apples together, a large variety of different apples" that included both imported apples and domestic apples.

Then, Vineland hired a group of trained apple tasters. This group generated a "lexicon of words used to describe the taste of apples", explained Bowen. The trained sensory professionals described and differentiated apples depending on the slight differences in taste among the varieties.

The words used to describe the apples were often centered around "how sweet it is, how acidic it is, how crisp it is, how juicy it is, how much floral or more green notes versus fruity or honey notes the apple might have" the researcher detailed.

"They've got 18 words that describe the 18 attributes of the apple. So, we'll use this vocabulary to categorize apples into certain taste profiles," Bowen went on.

And once the team created this lexicon, Vineland put them to work by having them try about 80 different kinds of apple varieties.

"We were able to see how there were main groups that apples clustered around. And with those flavor clusters, we then went out to the consumer to see what they did like and didn't like".

This information served as the starting point for the apple breeding program and informed the breeding stock that has launched the apple variety program. By sharing its information on consumer preferences and taste profiles with researchers on other teams that are more involved directly in the apple orchards, Bowen explained that teamwork across areas is critical for breeding programs.

Now that consumer insights has these tools, it is able to predict how much consumers will like new fruits and vegetables. This becomes useful for tracking the progress of new variety development. For example, if growers want to see if they're picking the right apples in the field and if those apples have the right attributes, referring to the already established preference chart ensures that they have "fruit that has a winning flavor profile".

From this innovation, new companies who want to use this approach on their own fruit have reached out to Vineland to test if their fruit meets consumer standards.

Vineland's five areas of focus

While Bowen heads the consumer insights area, there are four other teams that are tasked with researching different facets of innovation - making up the five total areas of research.

First, Bowen outlined what their fruit development program looks like. This involves variety development through breeding and genomic tools. This particular team seeks to "understand trait developments, integrating that into new varieties and releasing new varieties". They also try to find solutions that are disease resistant and will perform well in the market - mixing insight from other areas like Bowen's as well.

The center's biggest breeding programs are its projects on apples and greenhouse tomatoes. Beginning in 2011, their apple breeding programs will likely yield new varieties in the "next seven to eight years".

Greenhouse tomatoes, on the other hand, will have a new variety quite soon. In 2021, the program will produce its very first new tomato variety. This variety will be, detailed Bowen, a local variety that will perform in Canada's climate. As this is "quite different from the European environment where a majority of varieties are being produced", this local adaptation provides local producers with marketable tomatoes on the vine.

"We did a lot of work on the tomato program," she said about the role of the customer insight team. Whenever a new variety comes into the market its because the customer insight "did a lot of work on the flavor profile".

In addition, Vineland has smaller breeding programs for sweet potatoes and roses.

It also does a lot of work in biocontrol,"the focus mostly is on indoor environments", said Bowen. And vegetable and floral crops are the main products in the greenhouses that Vineland works with.

Bowen said that this has to do with "greening the landscape" and measuring how to make green spaces in urban landscapes successful. Optimization of the life of crops in these environments is particularly important for this area - "to make sure that the plants have a long life", explained Bowen.

Robotics and automation is the fourth research area Vineland works on. In this research area, the central problem Vineland confronts is addressing labor shortages and inefficiencies. Since "labor takes up such a large percentage of people's businesses, it could be a great place to create efficiencies within business", said Bowen.

Finally, she emphasized how the entire operation is funded.

"Funding is another thing that people are often interested in knowing about. We get about half of our funding through federal and provincial grants and the other half from industry partnerships and investments."

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