The company is determined to breed the perfect strawberry ... Strawberries grow almost everywhere in the world, though nowhere as bounteously as they do along this particular stretch of the California coast, about 95 miles south of San Francisco, where the Pajaro River empties into Monterey Bay. The Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno, anchoring nearby in 1602, found wild strawberries in December, which was unheard of in Europe. Explorers to other parts of the New World also discovered strawberries with marvelous advantages in color, size, and flavor, and took botanical specimens home. Two of these crossed to yield the modern strawberry, Fragaria x ananassa, in the 18th century. ... Today, California produces almost 29 percent of the world’s strawberries—$2.6 billion worth—a lot of that from the 14,200 acres of fields that surround Watsonville and neighboring Salinas. ... Yield per acre in California has increased almost fivefold since the 1950s. ... The state’s strawberry acreage has dropped about 4,000 acres in the past two years, a decrease of 11 percent, as some growers have abandoned the fruit. ... Driscoll’s breeding program predates the company itself. In 1944 a group of strawberry farmers founded the Strawberry Institute of California, dedicated to the development of new and better varieties. Driscoll Strawberry Associates, formed as a grower’s cooperative in 1953, merged with the institute in 1966, and got out of physical farming. Since then, the company has focused on the two ends of the supply chain. ... Driscoll’s has a staff of 30 scientists devoted solely to strawberries, manipulating evolution at nine research stations in Watsonville, Southern California, Florida, Spain, Mexico, and the U.K. The company provides seedling plants to contracted growers. Then, when the growers harvest the berries, Driscoll’s packs, ships, and markets them to retailers. The growers get 85 percent of the revenue; Driscoll’s keeps the rest.
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. ... 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. ... 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. ... For the shopper, the only impression that matters is the Driscoll’s name, and the red berries, as uniform as soldiers or paper valentines.