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Scientist Attempting to Create Perfect Strawberries

Have you imagined eating a strawberry that tastes somewhat like chocolate, or cinnamon, or mint? That may be available in American grocery stores soon and eventually on the global market. A scientist's decades-long effort to develop a better strawberry is about to show results. VOA's June Soh visited the scientist at a greenhouse on the University of Maryland campus near Washington, D.C. Carol Pearson narrates the story.

Day after day Harry Swartz eats strawberries. He is a plant breeder and professor at the University of Maryland. "It took me about 75 to 100,000 fruits to test to get to this particular variety. And it has a nice moschata (musky) flavor and a fair amount of sugar to it."

Swartz has a life-long quest: creating the perfect strawberry. It should be sweet, flavorful, resistant to disease and insects, and firm enough for shipping. And there is one more quality he is looking for: it should grow so that it can be harvested quickly by machine rather than picked painstakingly by hand.

"As you can see all the fruit tends to hang down. What we need to do is (for it) to stand upright like it does originally when it first flowers. We want fruit to be up here so a mechanical harvester can come through and pop the fruit off and collect it in a reasonable fashion."

Swartz also says it is important to develop a fruit that ripens all at the same time to get the mechanical harvest to work.

He and his research partner at the university are working to create such a strawberry, with support from the Maryland Industrial Partnerships Program.

Martha Connolly is the director of the program. "Maryland Industrial Partnerships is a funding program that helps connect University of Maryland faculty to local companies to do research and development projects that have commercial applications."

Swartz has spent his career in the berry field after earning a doctorate in pomology, the science that deals with fruit growing, in 1979 from Cornell University in New York. His love of strawberries started at an early age.

"I really like strawberries since I was a kid and I have always enjoyed the nice experience. I always expected eating fresh strawberries in my grandparents' home in Buffalo, New York. It is important to people that strawberries have a nice aroma and a good amount of sugar to hit them in the beginning when they eat it."

Swartz's decades-long effort to create a better strawberry has resulted in developing strawberries with various flavors such as cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate and mint. "It takes a lot of hard work. We create about 60,000 seeds a year. For my control hybridization we plant about 25,000 seedlings out in the fields. Our British counterpart also has about 36,000 seedlings. We have to evaluate each one of those several times a year -- six, seven, eight, nine times. That involves eating a lot of strawberries."

Swartz's company, Five Aces Breeding, which is the privatized version of the University of Maryland's small fruit program, has breeding fields in Mexico, Spain, England, Canada and in the United States. "We really want to develop Asian and Australian markets as well, as we have small ventures started in Ethiopia outside of our normal cooperative area, which is the EU and the Americas."

Five Aces has a noble goal. That is to get people to eat more fruits. "I look at the candy industry and refined sugar industry as being my competitor. We want somebody to have fruit that will just give them such a wonderful experience that they will rather have that than have a candy bar," Swartz said.

Some of his so-called designer strawberries will make their debut in small quantities on the U.S and Middle East markets as early as next year. If consumer acceptance is there, Swartz says a large quantity will be available and distributed worldwide.