(UF/IFAS) — When Patricio Muñoz developed the University of Florida’s newest blueberry variety, he wanted to name the fruit in honor of Alto Straughn, a longtime, strong supporter of UF’s blueberry breeding program.
Muñoz decided to call the new variety the ‘Sentinel.’
“A ‘sentinel’ is a watcher or guardian,” said Muñoz, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of horticultural sciences. “It is symbolic. We came up with the idea to name the blueberry after Alto because he ‘watched and guarded’ the blueberry breeding program for many years.”
For years, Straughn, an alumnus of the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and a former UF/IFAS Extension administrator, owned blueberry farms near Waldo, Florida, northeast of the main UF campus in Gainesville.
Now in his 80s, Straughn still meets regularly with the UF/IFAS blueberry breeder.
“Since I arrived at the program, Alto and I have discussed much about blueberries: cultivars, production, packing, marketing and more,” said Muñoz. “Alto has seen the industry from the beginning, and I am glad he has shared all that information with me and the blueberry breeding program team.”
Scientists first tested the new UF/IFAS variety on Straughn’s farm in Waldo, and later in fields stretching as far south as Arcadia, Florida.
“So, we have determined that the best area for its production is the central and northern parts of Florida,” Muñoz said.
Blueberries are about a $60 million-a-year industry in Florida. To put the impact of blueberries into further economic perspective, Florida’s blueberry farmers produce about 10 to 12 million tons annually in Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The new blueberry variety ‘Sentinel’ increases the farmers’ yield for central and northern Florida. It’s a low-chill southern highbush variety. UF/IFAS breeds southern highbush blueberries, which are synonymous with low-chill and can be grown in the South, Muñoz said.
It’s a higher quality fruit than previous UF/IFAS cultivars. It also gives the grower fruit at the best market window, Muñoz said.
And, it tastes good. This variety was tested in multiple flavor panels at UF, and they rated ‘Sentinel’ “high” regarding flavor, Muñoz said.
The release of the new blueberry variety couldn’t come at a better time, Muñoz said.
“While 2020 has been a tough year – with hurricanes and COVID, among other issues — some good things are still happening, including a new blueberry that farmers and consumers will both enjoy,” Muñoz said.
Sensory Lab Helps UF/IFAS Breeders Know which Fruits, Veggies Taste, Smell Best
Not long ago, about 200 consumer panelists went to the University of Florida Sensory Testing Lab to taste a new blueberry developed by UF/IFAS scientists. Turns out, they liked the flavor of the ‘Sentinel’ blueberry, said its breeder, Patricio Muñoz.
The Sensory Testing Lab sits rather inconspicuously in the middle of campus. Few people come or go. But inside, volunteers test some of the future foods you’ll eat. These flavor panelists act like focus groups in the UF/IFAS Food Science and Human Nutrition Department Sensory Testing Lab, or Building 120, as it’s also known.
The ‘Sentinel’ blueberry is the latest in a longstanding tradition of top-notch fruit to emerge from the research of UF/IFAS scientists like Muñoz, an assistant professor of horticultural sciences.
Many scientists bring their fruit and vegetable varieties to the lab, said Charles Sims, a UF/IFAS professor of food science and human nutrition. Food companies, faculty and graduate students use the lab to conduct research on the aroma, texture and flavor of foods, said Sims, who runs the lab.
“One of our main collaborations is with the plant breeders in horticultural sciences and across UF/IFAS,” Sims said. “We provide sensory testing on a range of fruits and vegetables to help identify what varieties consumers like the best and some of the sensory characteristics of these varieties. This assists plant breeders with developing varieties with better flavor and consumer appeal.”
For years, the flavor panelists have helped UF/IFAS researchers by telling which types of produce please their palates. Using the genetic data that produced those sensory attributes, UF/IFAS breeders develop more appealing citrus, corn, blueberries and strawberries, among other food in the produce section of your grocery store.
“This includes the research projects that I do on senses, collaborations with many other researchers across UF/IFAS and the rest of UF and collaborations with the food industry,” he said. “This laboratory is essential for the research that I do and provides the facilities and staff to assist other IFAS/UF researchers and the food industry.”