By Lilian Schaer for AgInnovation Ontario
Vineland, Ontario – The availability of fresh Ontario fruit like peaches is a true sign of summer.
Buoyed by the buy local movement, both consumers and retailers are keen to have more Ontario products more often – and that will soon be possible thanks to a project underway at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland).
Peach, nectarine, apricot, pear, and plum varieties developed over the years through Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and University of Guelph breeding programs are now being evaluated to identify the best ones to meet consumer preferences.
“We’re trying to fill gaps in the harvest window to make a continual harvest season and at the same time, see if there are tender fruit varieties that are better than those currently being grown, that have better taste or are hardier or more grower-friendly,” explains Michael Kauzlaric, Technology Scout and Grower Outreach at Vineland.
To achieve this, the Tender Fruit Evaluation Committee was formed in 2011, bringing farmers, tree nurseries and retailers together with fruit breeders at Vineland and the University of Guelph to help provide guidance on which varieties to release to the marketplace.
“We’re looking at new breeding selections of older varieties and now the final decision doesn’t lie just with the plant breeder. Our committee has already gone through several selections,” he says.
The first 600 test trees consisting of two peach and two nectarine varieties were propagated in 2012 and planted on commercial farms in 2014. Four more varieties – two peach and two nectarine – will be planted this year.
Additional nectarine varieties are also planned for 2016, and Vineland is hoping for apricot and plum test trees to be ready for planting in 2017.
It may take up to five years to be able to say definitively that a variety has merit in both fruit quality and tree performance, so the first commercial fruit from the trees planted in 2014 is expected by 2019.
“We view over 30 selections annually during an orchard walk-through. Tasting four to eight selections takes place weekly from mid-July to Labour Day,” says Kauzlaric. “If a variety is a wow, we’ll bud trees in 2015 and plant test trees on commercial farms in 2017.”
So far, approximately 100 selections have been looked at through this project; about 25 selections of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, and pears show promise and are being advanced for further testing.
Kauzlaric adds that peaches have always dominated the local market, so there are smaller acreages of plums, nectarines, and apricots in Ontario compared to peaches.
The selections now being brought forward could be a good way for tender fruit growers to diversify their crops.
Grower interest in the project has been strong so far, and Vineland’s ultimate goal is to spread these varieties across Canada.
Vineland is in a regulated zone for Plum Pox, a devastating tree fruit disease, so the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) doesn’t allow propagation inside that zone.
Plant material has to be sent from Vineland to the CFIA lab on Vancouver Island to be tested for viruses, before clean budwood can be distributed across Canada for further propagation. The testing period can take up to four years.
According to Kauzlaric, CFIA support has allowed the evaluation committee to run its testing parallel to the Agency’s lab work, shortening the amount of time needed to bring new varieties to market.
Commercial growers interested in participating in future on-farm testing of new varieties should contact Kauzlaric at 905-562-0320, ext 755 or Michael.email@example.com.
The new varietal development project is supported by Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative, through the AgriInnovation Program.
Note: Fruit images courtesy of Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.