Why Florida Citrus Variety Display Days Need Fine-Tuning

Participants at UF/IFAS citrus variety display event

Some citrus variety display day events have been very well attended like this one, but others have not enjoyed good such a good turnout. Participation is key to citrus breeding success. Photo by Peter Chaires

Florida’s outstanding in-state citrus breeding programs at UF/IFAS and USDA-ARS have been hard at work developing new selections for the processed and fresh fruit pipelines. More than 40,000 unique plants are in the field, many of which fruited this year for the first time. The monumental task before us is the identification of selections with superior traits, the development of new or improved models for release and trial, as well as the establishment of a process to determine tolerance and productivity in the field. These are three distinctly unique challenges.

New Varieties Development Management Corp. (NVDMC) has approached this challenge somewhat differently with USDA-ARS and UF/IFAS, but the core mission remains the same: Identify those selections that have the traits and characteristics required to improve Florida’s competitive position. As a basis for discussion, we will explore how NVDMC and UF’s Citrus Research and Education Center’s (CREC) Plant Improvement Team have collaborated to move the most promising material forward. This has been a beneficial process, but there is a need for a course correction. Lessons gleaned may be broadly applicable.

Quick History
The NVDMC Board is a diverse body appointed by seven industry organizations. Each member represents the interests and perspectives of the organization that appointed them. NVDMC’s original approach to assist in the identification and elevation of promising new UF/IFAS citrus selections was to engage the diversity of the NVDMC Board of Directors to identify and set breeding priorities and support targeted citrus breeding projects focused on the specific market-driven needs of the industry. The early focus was on fresh fruit, as funding was predominantly from fresh sources. As funding sources changed, so did the overall focus of the NVDMC sponsored projects. A historical overview of this process will provide a context for this discussion.

Whereas the initial fresh-fruit objective was the replacement of obsolete varieties, it naturally expanded to include those selections with better performance in an HLB-endemic environment. Thankfully, much of the early work to expand the genetic diversity of plant material and generate a range of mandarin hybrids for the fresh market also helped populate the pipeline with orange-like hybrids that are currently under evaluation for potential utility in the orange-juice stream. Though finding useful levels of tolerance in the grapefruit category has proven substantially more difficult, the work to fill the pipeline with selections for the fresh market may ultimately pay dividends for processed grapefruit markets.

NVDMC and the CREC Plant Improvement Team shared the objective of exposing the industry to promising new selections as early as possible. It was important to engage stakeholders in this process and to make it a true collaboration. As a means to this end, NVDMC began to sponsor and help facilitate variety display days several times each season. The purpose of these events would be to expose nurseries, growers, packers, processors, marketers, flavor companies, and other interested parties to the latest citrus breeding innovations. The display days were intended to gather feedback to help inform release decisions within the UF/IFAS release model process. This would enable breeders to recommend selections that had already caught the eye of the industry and for which there was demonstrated enthusiastic support.

For varieties thought to have mostly processing potential, display day participants were provided fresh fruit and sometimes juice samples to help processors identify those selections that should undergo more rigorous trial and analysis. Attendance at the UF/IFAS variety displays was cyclical from the start. Some were standing room only, and others were sparsely attended. It is now clear the information gleaned from these events has diminished in quality and quantity over time.

Fast Forward to 2020

NVDMC Board members recently gathered with the CREC Plant Improvement Team to discuss this situation and begin to explore ways to improve the system. Because a tremendous amount of time and resources goes into these events, it is critical they yield useful information. There was consensus that the following factors play a role in the diminished effectiveness of the displays:

  • There is just too much to evaluate. With so many unique plants in the field, new discoveries are commonplace. Considering the original goal of engaging industry in the process, it is tempting to include them all. However, attendees can become quickly overwhelmed with the volume of selections. Upon entering the room and seeing the vastness of the display, some participants shut down and don’t even start the process of evaluation. Others limit their focus to the things they think appear the most promising and just a few slog through the entire display. The January 2020 event featured 53 selections. This is just too much.
  • The displays have evolved into a social activity for many. Once side-bar conversations begin, others get drawn in, and pretty soon folks have visited for an hour, need to return work, but never completed the work that they came to do.
  • The displays are a business time for some. A time to see clients and prospective clients.
  • UF Plant Breeders Fred Gmitter and Jude Grosser need to be present to answer questions about their material, but this also can slow the process, or in other cases has the potential to bias survey results.
  • There are two other breeding programs. Dr. José Chaparro’s smaller UF/IFAS program in Gainesville and the longstanding USDA-ARS program. Attending events in four locations throughout the season is a scheduling and time challenge for most.
  • Surveying only within our industry groups may not tell us everything we need to know. We think we know what we know, but do we? Consider how the displays might include a more diverse consumer mix.

The conversation then turned to possible ways of improving the initial identification of citrus selections that should move forward. Below are some outtakes from the conversation:

  • Establish a traffic-flow for attendees that will enable them to move through the display, complete the survey, and then exit to an area where they can engage their friends and colleagues in discussion about the experience or cover other business.
  • It has been suggested that fruit for processing and fresh fruit markets should be handled separately. However, the ultimate utilization of released material may be determined by the market presence of the user. Most Florida oranges were introduced for processing, but the packing of these oranges is of significant importance to many packinghouses. Conversely, ‘Sugar Belle’ was released for the fresh market, but has brix, color, and acid that may be of blending value to processors. There seems to be more interest in keeping everything together.
  • The Plant Improvement Team agreed to work with their field staff to pare down the list of selections to a more manageable number. Breeders have a keen understanding of the needs of industry and can do a good job of pairing down the list. This does increase the risk of identifying something of marketable value that didn’t catch the eye of the breeders, but it seems to be the most practical approach.
  • Continue to simplify and improve the survey form – eliminating unnecessary questions and focus on the key areas where subjective input is required.
  • These displays have been CREC-centric. There is industry interest in including Dr. Chaparro’s Gainesville program as well as USDA at the same events. Everything in one place evaluated in the same manner at the same times. This would present more logistical and policy challenges, but it is worthy of exploration. It would further increase the volume of material to be evaluated but also has the potential to simplify the process for participants and enhance the value of the experience. Field day opportunities could still be offered in Gainesville and Leesburg. Stay tuned.
  • The Florida Citrus Show is a great place to generate interest in new selections, but a very difficult environment for data collection. Some years back, NVDMC hosted a variety display in a side room at the Show. This idea may be revisited as the Show is well attended and presents a great opportunity. Standalone display events in the Indian River have not drawn sufficient participation.
  • Lake Alfred seems to be the most popular location for displays.

The presence of a full citrus breeding pipeline and a substantial volume of material to evaluate for the benefit of industry may fall into the category of “a good problem to have.” It represents nothing but pure unadulterated opportunity. We need to take full advantage through engagement, collaboration, and commitment of adequate resources.

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