WATSONVILLE, Calif. — A number of major Southern California strawberry-grower shippers find that the key to differentiating themselves from the competition is offering good-tasting, high-quality proprietary varieties that are exclusive to their companies.

The California Strawberry Commission estimates that growers will plant 14,500 acres of proprietary strawberries in 2010, comprising 39% of the state’s strawberry acreage.

Since its inception, Driscoll Strawberry Associates has committed itself to developing new and better consumer-focused varieties, said Michael Hollister, vice president of sales and marketing.

“We felt many years ago that a way to set ourselves apart is to have our own unique varieties to help our growers to compete against others,” he said.

This year, 90% of the company’s production will come from patented proprietary varieties.

Driscoll’s research and development department focuses on flavor along with an appealing heart-like shape and good color, Hollister said.

Varieties change from district to district and year to year, but every cultivar must meet the same quality standards before it becomes commercialized, he said.

The company has test plots in all production areas.

About 85% of the strawberries from Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., are proprietary varieties, said Jim Roberts, senior director of sales.

Distinguishing qualities

In Southern California, the company is especially proud of what it calls its 1975 variety.

The variety has performed so well in that region that Naturipe has committed additional acreage to it this season.

The variety comes on later than most of the university varieties, so the company misses out on some of the early markets and high prices.

But Roberts said it’s the right thing to do, “because it delivers what we believe is the best-eating piece of fruit in the marketplace.”

The berry has good flavor, produces well and holds its medium-large size throughout the season, unlike some university varieties, he said. It also travels well, especially during warm weather.

“We believe that it’s a good investment of our money because ultimately, we want to grow consumption for strawberries and grow our overall share in the strawberry market,” Roberts said.

Red Blossom Farms in Santa Ynez, markets only berry varieties developed by Berry Genetics Inc.

“We think they taste better, ship better and offer better quality strawberries for our customers,” said Craig Casca, director of sales.

The company always has grown some BGI varieties, but this year, Red Blossom Farms will eliminate its ventana variety and offer 100% BGI berries, Casca said.

“People looking for quality prefer BGI over the ventana,” he said.

Not every strawberry grower-shipper is a fan of proprietary varieties.

Added expense

Watsonville-based California Giant Inc., for example, does not offer a proprietary variety, said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing.

“Having a proprietary program is extremely expensive,” she said

The university-developed albion variety is the best strawberry to come along in a long time, she said, pointing out that even some companies that market proprietary varieties also pack the albion.

However, Jewell did not rule out the possibility that the company someday may offer a proprietary berry.

“If there is a variety out there that is better than the university varieties, then we would probably try to buy it or get access to it,” she said. “If you keep your focus on flavor, you’ll do whatever you can to get the best berry out there.”

Roberts said Naturipe seeks out the best variety for each growing region, and the company offers the albion in its central and northern growing areas.

“We’re looking to put together a program that brings flavor to table as its No. 1 component,” he said.

o matter what variety is in the package, he added, if customers have a good eating experience, they will come back and look for that brand.

Hollister said that, in tests, Driscoll’s proprietary varieties always rate exceptional in “consumer delight characteristics,” so the company continues to invest in developing good varieties.

“If we felt a university variety had the right attributes, we would consider it,” Hollister said.

In fact, about 10% of the company’s strawberries are university varieties, he said.