Protecting decades of research

Plant breeders rights are an essential tool for safeguarding intellectual property, including cherry varieties subject to extensive development.

by Jeff Long

Intellectual property (IP) is usually associated with software or other inventions protected by patents and copyrights. IP rights also extend to agriculture, where decades of costly research and development by plant breeders are protected from piracy by international law.

Known as plant breeder rights – or PBRs – these protections grant exclusive control over propagated material such as seeds, plant cuttings and tissue culture for a period of time.

With these rights, breeders can choose to license their new varietals to outside agencies or market them directly. Here’s an introduction to two of the leading North American-based breeders of sweet cherries.

Summerland’s Starletta variety is a white cherry with a firm, crunchy texture


Based in Summerland, British Columbia, Summerland Varieties oversees the IP rights of tree fruit cultivars developed by the Summerland Research and Development Centre (SRDC), a division of the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture.

Established in 1914, it is estimated that 75 per cent of all the sweet cherries varieties consumed today have a heritage related to the SRDC breeding programmes.

Notable SRDC cherry cultivars include the self-fertile pollinating Sweetheart, Skeena and Lapins.

“The first commercial self-fertile variety developed was ‘Stella’ in 1968,” notes Nick Ibuki, business development manager of Summerland Varieties. “That was a game changer.”

Ibuki says Summerland Varieties aren’t marketers or breeders themselves but rather “IP managers”, working in partnership with growers, packers and marketers around matching SRDC cultivars to various growing regions.

“For example, we found that while Lapins did very well in some climates, it did quite poorly in others. With the years of research and development at stake, you want to avoid damaging the varietal brand by growing them in the wrong place.

“That requires extensive field testing before a particular variety is released for commercialisation,” he highlights.

According to Ibuki, it takes 25 to 30 years to develop a novel cherry variety. “Sweetheart is an example. It began as one seedling amongst thousands. At each stage of evaluation, a multitude of non-superior seedlings are discarded until ultimately the most promising selection(s) remain,” he explains.

“It takes years to come up with five potential ‘winners’ that proceed to final testing for selecting the one variety released to the market. It’s not unusual for breeders to inherit the work of their predecessors.”

Summerland Varieties and SRDC’s breeding programmes target their varieties to all market windows. “The current emphasis is on varieties that hit the late- and early-season market windows as they have the best potential to generate value,” says Ibuki.

“But mid-season markets have good potential as well. Our goal has always been to breed bigger, firmer and better-tasting cherries.”

“Cherry trees are not as quick to bear fruit as grapevines and so the turnaround time on selections is slower”


Best known for its innovative and high-taste table grape cultivars, International Fruit Genetics (IFG) has a rich history in the cherry breeding business.

“Cherries are a longstanding passion of IFG, having started at the same time as the table grape breeding programme in 2001,” says Alwyn van Jaarsveld, international cherry commercial manager of IFG. “Cherry trees are not as quick to bear fruit as grapevines and so the turnaround time on selections is slower.”

IFG currently has its varietals growing on five continents, marketed under its Cheery brand, explains van Jaarsveld.

“We have commercial orchards in quite a few locations in the US, Chile, Spain, Australia and South Africa,” he tells Fresh Focus Cherry. “Cheery Grand, Cheery Moon, Cheery Treat and Cheery Crunch are some of the red varietals, with Cheery Glow and Cheery Blush representing blushed.”

IFG’s Cheery Grand is one of the breeder’s red varietals

IFG’s cherry breeding has had an emphasis on low-chill varieties, given there is a ready-made market locally in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where the winters are becoming increasingly warmer.

“The advantage of low-chill is multifold,” says van Jaarsveld. “Cherries can be grown in areas or regions that (previously) were less suitable – or even unsuitable – for cultivation. To open a cherry season with amazing flavour and a great eating experience has always been enticing as it provides value for customers and growers alike.”

But van Jaarsveld is quick to add IFG is not exclusively focusing on low-chill cherries. “In the breeding process, we use high-chill genetics for size and quality attributes. When we hit upon a winner in a higher chill category, we are not shy to release it, such as Cheery Moon, which has a higher chill requirement.

“All IFG varieties, regardless of the chilling requirement, are early harvest. Our programme follows the same mantra as our table grapes, focusing on unique characteristics that bring something special to the table,” he concludes.