Raising the Bar: A Look Inside Driscoll’s Strawberry Program

Strawberry on plant in field
The hundred-plus-year history of Driscoll’s strawberries began with the Sweetbriar strawberry, a glossy and fragrant berry discovered on a Shasta County ranch by Ed Reiter’s sister Louise in 1900. Within four years of its discovery, the California strawberry business was booming and the first commercial field of Sweetbriar strawberries was planted at Watsonville’s Cassin Ranch. Known for its large size, vibrant color and excellent flavor, the Sweetbriar strawberry was renamed the Banner berry, a nod to the sapphire-colored ribbon tied around each crate to distinguish the superior berries as they made their way from the field to the train cars for distribution.
Fast forward over a century, when we meet Phil Stewart, Driscoll’s Global Breeding Director for Strawberries in North America. Leaning against the bed of his truck, Phil pulls on his field boots for a walk through the strawberry test plots at Cassin Ranch. Here, tens of thousands of strawberry seedlings vie for selection as part of the one percent chosen to become a patented Driscoll’s strawberry variety. “The most exciting moment every year is that first walk through the seedling field once the season has started,” Phil tells us. 

There’s a real sense of possibility—all these potential varieties, all this variation. You’ve got expectations and hopes—it’s a fun discovery process.

Phil’s referring to the process by which we breed and test our signature strawberries. Each year, our research and development team studies thousands of potential strawberry varieties to dial in exceptional flavor, appearance and shelf life. “The fundamental principle of breeding is making hybrids,” Phil explains. “We take pollen from one plant and put it on the flowers of another to combine the genes of those plants—we’re trying to create as much variation as we can in those seedlings. Then we’ll plant that population, trying to find the one that has the best possible combination of traits.” 

strawberry field  

Since the very beginning, we’ve always focused on how to bring more experience—more delight—into our strawberries. “If you look at the bars we’ve set for our strawberries in terms of appearance and flavor, you don’t have to look very far to see that our berries are held to incredibly high standards,” Phil shares. “It’s become our trademark. If we can create a strawberry that consumers will seek out, or has flavor that ties back to a fond memory, we’ll not only maintain those high standards, but we’ll keep pushing the bar higher.” 

The number one thing that we’re looking for is flavor. It’s got to be something people will be happy to eat.

From planting the first commercial strawberry fields at the turn of the twentieth century to staying on the cutting edge of today’s plant science technology, the Driscoll’s research and development team has worked diligently to advance strawberry research and improve our product. “Success builds on itself, and I think every generation gets us further along,” says Phil. “The number one thing that we’re looking for is flavor. It’s got to be something people will be happy to eat—and that’s been a top priority at Driscoll’s from the very beginning.” Whether you’re biting into your first-ever Driscoll’s strawberry or you’ve been enjoying our berries for decades, you’re delighting in a true labor of love that’s over a hundred years in the making. 
Watch Driscoll’s new miniseries “Pursuit of Flavor” to discover more about our berry breeding programs.