Grower Trials Benefit The Whole Industry [Opinion]

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Robin SiktbergEach year, growers are faced with the choice of what to grow for the following spring. It’s an important decision requiring evaluation of a number of factors: what sold well last year, what shipped well, what will fit into the production schedule, what had a decent profit margin. And then there are the hundreds of new varieties that are introduced each year. Which ones should a grower try, if any?

This is where field trials come in, and is one reason we devote significant space to the results in our November issue each year. Trials are where the wheat is separated from the chaff.

Field trials used to be the primary province of university horticulture departments, but more and more, growers are running their own. It is a significant investment of time and resources, so what is the reason?

Al Gerace, owner of Welby Gardens in Fort Collins, Colo., says he realized more than 30 years ago that the results he was seeing at trials around the country and abroad did not reflect the performance he was seeing in Colorado.
So Gerace began his own trials in the early 1990s and now evaluates up to 1,200 varieties each year. He says there are many benefits, both tangible and intangible.

“We invite our customers, breeders and other growers to our annual Open House, and about 300 people usually attend,” Gerace says. ”We ask each person to vote for their 10 favorites. We distribute trials plants (100 each) to selected retailers to conduct their own evaluations and let the public give their input. We also grow out another trial of the best of the items for spring promotion at about 20 participating retailers and send out a member of our staff to introduce these new varieties to the public at these locations.”

In addition, Gerace says having trials at his own operation allows the growers and sales team to learn about the merits of each new introduction and become familiar with the particular characteristics of each breeding company.
“It’s a great way to launch new varieties, keep the selection fresh and pique interest in our assortment of offerings,” Gerace says. “Having our own trials helps maintain our leadership in the field, keeps our customers and staff informed and makes our own contributions to the evolution of this very dynamic industry.”

While many growers are not large enough to conduct and maintain their own trials, enough large growers are doing so that it is benefiting the whole industry. University trials are still valuable, but given the vast climactic diversity between regions and the tremendous number of new varieties to be tested, it’s a win-win that growers are getting into the game, too.

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