When you think of the perfect blueberry, what characteristics come to mind? A flavor combination that’s just the right mix of sweet and tart? A texture that’s pleasantly crisp and firm, allowing for that delightful “pop” in the mouth? A deep blue color with just the right amount of bloom? For Jim Olmstead, Ph.D., Driscoll’s Global Director of Blueberry Breeding and head blueberry Joy Maker
, the perfect blueberry is all of these things—and so much more.
A plant scientist for over twenty years, Jim’s excitement about Driscoll’s blueberry R&D program is palpable, and it comes across in the superior quality and dialed-in flavor of the berries currently developed.
“In my role, I’m the leader of five different Driscoll’s Blueberry R&D Programs around the world,” Jim says. The placement of these programs isn’t just to satisfy Jim’s wanderlust—there’s thousands of hours of research and strategy behind the locations, based upon climate and adaptability.
“We want to develop blueberry varieties that we can grow in subtropical, lower latitude areas so we can get away from blueberries being a very seasonal crop. Through our blueberry program, we can make blueberry varieties that grow in different areas around the globe throughout the year, and then fine-tune where we can grow the best varieties.”
When we ask Jim about the details of blueberry breeding, he gives us specifics.
“We don’t use GMO technology in our variety development, it’s all very traditional cross-pollination and selecting the best combinations.
We choose two parent plants to cross together-the two blueberry varieties, for example-and we take pollen from one variety and manually transfer it to the flower of a second, Jim shares. The result? A beautiful, tasty blueberry that has the traits our breeders want and the delightful characteristics our consumers love. It takes thousands of cross-pollinated tests to find a new variety that is truly special.
Just recently, the program has focused on a particular blueberry that definitely falls into the “best variety” category: the Jumbo Blueberry. “Our Jumbo Blueberries are an example of the different berry experiences that only Driscoll’s can offer. By our definition, Jumbo Blueberries are about three-quarters of an inch or larger in diameter, which means that sometimes a blueberry in a Jumbo package can be the size of a quarter,” he says.
But Jim and his team don’t stop at size. “It makes for a really impressive-looking blueberry, but the key is to not stop there,” he says. “Only certain varieties have been selected as Driscoll’s Jumbo blueberries because we think they’re the best-tasting and the most delightful, combined with their extra-large size. Flavor is always our highest priority.”
We all know and love the word “delightful,” but how does Jim qualify delightful blueberry traits? “With texture, we want crisp, firm, and juicy berries,” he says. “Appearance is another trait—we want the color, size, and uniformity of the blueberries to be similar. And then there’s shelf-life potential—how long they can last from the time they’re picked to the time our consumers are seeing them in the store and ensuring they last a good deal longer in their home’s refrigerator.” All of these traits are important to developing the perfect blueberry.
With Driscoll’s Jumbo Blueberries, our berry-loving consumers are getting the best of both worlds: the flavor and texture you enjoy combined with a larger size—simply put, these berries are giving you more of what you love.
“It’s the best of our blueberries right now,” Jim says, “Our goal is to make the Jumbo Blueberries a very special and delicious berry that only Driscoll’s can offer. When available we think our blueberry consumer will love their large size and great flavor as much as we do.”
Just how limited are these prized sapphire jewels? “The availability period for our Jumbo Blueberries is fairly broad, from October through March,” he adds, “They’re grown in our southern areas, including Southern California and Mexico.”
This season, when you spot a package of Driscoll’s Special Pick Jumbo Blueberries at the store, you’ll not only recognize the superior size and quality of these special blueberries, but you’ll know the passion and dedication behind them.
As our conversation with Jim came to a close, he left us with this berry sweet reminder. “These proprietary varieties are really important to our mission—they allow us to deliver the best, most delightful berries to the consumer,” he shares. “When we know how best to grow them, we can be confident in the berry we deliver.”
Dr. James W. Olmstead is the Director of Global Blueberry Breeding for Driscoll’s, Inc. in Watsonville, CA. In this role, he directs breeding efforts to develop proprietary genetics for Driscoll’s growers worldwide. Prior to his position at Driscoll’s, Dr. Olmstead was an Associate Professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, where he led the blueberry breeding and genetics program. He received his Ph.D. at Michigan State University (2006) in Plant Breeding and Genetics. Dr. Olmstead has released seven blueberry cultivars, has three patents, has published 49 peer-reviewed manuscripts, and served as a committee member for 26 graduate students including seven as chair or co-chair.