Costa plant breeder leads development of new blueberry varieties

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From a small office on a ‘farm’ at Corindi on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, plant breeder Jessica Scalzo is leading the development of new blueberry varieties now being grown and sold around the globe.

Dr Scalzo is the Variety Improvement Manager for the Costa Berry Category and is overseeing a program to continuously improve the fruit quality and growing characteristics of the blueberry.

“It’s a long process and a big challenge, balancing the horticultural, market and consumer requirements,” Dr Scalzo said.

“Plant breeding is a good combination between art and science. You have to use your imagination when you breed a crop because what you cross today you won’t see as a variety for around 10 years.”

With increased production of blueberries around the globe, Dr Scalzo said much of the breeding work has been focused on higher crop yield and increased productivity.

“In some breeding programs fruit quality has been left behind, but I am a great believer in quality and that is what differentiates our Costa varieties from others,” she said.

Dr Scalzo, who grew up in a small Italian town, said she had always had an interest in plant breeding. She completed a Master of Agricultural Science and Food Technology at the University of Ancona in Italy, before going on to complete her PhD in plant breeding.

“I worked mainly with berry fruits and the aim was to increase the antioxidant and health benefits by putting these qualities back into the fruit,” she said.

After working in New Zealand, Dr Scalzo and her husband Maurizio Rocchetti, a horticulturalist, came to Australia to work in the berry industry.

“I started with Costa in 2013. This ‘farm’ is actually an institute of people. We have some of the world’s experts in blueberries here, and in areas such logistics and horticulture.  That was one of the reasons I wanted to join this company, I wanted new challenges and I am still learning,” she said.

“Costa invests a lot into this type of research and development; we are the breeders and the growers which gives us a big advantage.  Our varieties are in high demand and are grown pretty much around the world.”

Using traditional plant breeding techniques, Dr Scalzo and her team have tens of thousands of plants being grown under trial conditions, constantly looking for new varieties that meet the quality test.

“We start with more than 20,000 seedlings, which are new crosses between existing varieties, and we test every single plant for fruit characteristics — good flavour, good texture and good eating qualities. We also look for firmness and good colour.  The selection pressure is very high, we only keep one to two per cent of them.”

The plants that make the grade are then propagated by cuttings and put through further trials which can run for up to 10 years.

“We might end up with just five new varieties in 10 years from our original 20,000 plants.”

Dr Scalzo said while the returns were long-term, there were advantages of working with berries compared to other fruits.

Plant breeders working in apples, which have a 20 year growing cycle for example, might only see two cycles in their working lives.

“With berries I can get to see the results of my work which is very rewarding.”

Dr Scalzo’s efforts in plant breeding were recognised by the Costa Group in 2016 when she was awarded the Chairman’s Award for Business Innovation.  She has also published a number of book chapters and numerous papers in peer reviewed scientific journals.

Costa is Australia’s leading grower, packer and marketer of premium quality fresh fruit and vegetables. Operations include more than 3500 planted hectares of farmland, 30 hectares of glasshouse and seven mushroom growing facilities across Australia. Costa also has international operations, with interests in five blueberry farms in Morocco and two berry farms in China.