Some of California’s top strawberry grower-shippers known for proprietary varieties source from a pair of commonly owned companies devoted to developing berries that meet the specific needs of their client “club members” and consumers.


Watsonville, Calif.-based Plant Sciences Inc. and its sister company, Berry Genetics Inc., were established in 1985 and 1993, respectively, to enable clients to grow exclusive varieties to help set themselves apart from their competitors, said Steve Nelson, president of BGI and vice president of Plant Sciences.


The core business of Plant Sciences is varietal development, nursery production, and crop consulting.


Plant Sciences specializes in day-neutral varieties usually planted in Oxnard, Calif., for fall production, and in summer-bearing varieties grown in Santa Maria, Watsonville and Salinas, Calif. The latter are licensed exclusively to Watsonville-based Well-Pict Inc.

BGI breeds for short-day varieties grown in Southern California and in Mediterranean climates around the world.


It contracts with its sister company to propagate its varieties.


Plant Sciences was launched by Nelson’s father, plant scientist Richard Nelson, and BGI was established by Steve Nelson and partners Lee Stoeckle, brother Mike Nelson and his father.


BGI doesn’t seek the limelight, preferring to stay behind the scenes to “give the grower-shipper the varietal tools they need to grow and compete with their labels,” Nelson said.


A grower-shipper who wants to establish its own breeding program could expect to pay $500,000 a year for 10 years to, with any luck, produce a successful variety, Nelson said.


Although he does not rule out the possibility of taking on additional clients at some point, so far the companies’ doors have remained locked to outsiders.


“We have held with our original membership from the inception of the club,” he said. “We want to ensure that we are truly adding value to our existing club membership before we would consider adding additional members.”


In breeding strawberry cultivars, the companies aim for a number of consumer traits, such as flavor, texture, aroma and appearance — and agronomic traits, such as timing of the crop, productivity, rain tolerance, pest and disease tolerance and ease of harvest.


In most cases, any club member has access to any of the companies’ varieties. This season, Plant Sciences has five varieties in commercial production and BGI has three.


“We’re screening new populations annually,” he said. “We have research plots throughout the state and throughout the world.”


The companies have clients in the Middle East, Europe, Central America, South America and elsewhere.


Besides strawberries, Plant Sciences breeds raspberries, blackberries and hybrid artichokes.


Current club members: Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego; Cal Cel Marketing Inc., Oxnard; Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.; Saticoy Berry Farms Inc., Oxnard; and Well-Pict.