Malling Cherry Ventures: A new global entry in cherry breeding and commercialisation

Malling Cherry Ventures is a joint venture between NIAB EMR of Kent in England, their funding partner Berry Gardens Growers Ltd (BGG) and the Associated International Group of Nurseries (AIGN®).  The collaboration between the companies began nearly two years ago with the aim to develop cherry varieties of outstanding fruit quality that are adapted to intensive orchards. Season extension (both for early and late ripening), novelty types and improved storage ability are some of the main breeding targets. The purpose of Malling Cherry Ventures is to promote cherry selections released by the NIAB EMR breeding programme via AIGN’s world-wide network of nursery companies and commercialisation programmes.

NIAB EMR is recognised as an expert in fruit genetics and plant breeding, a reputation earned through more than a century of study of fruit trees, other fruit crops and research to improve fruit crop production.  The research station at East Malling is well known in the horticultural community for their work in the development of controlled atmosphere storage and for their releases of dwarfing rootstocks of apples. Known as the Malling Series, and followed by the Malling Merton series, these growth-controlling rootstocks revolutionised orchard structure in the 1930’s and they are now the main rootstocks used in orchards round the world. 

Cherry breeding in the United Kingdom started in the 1920’s and it was originally divided between two sites. Scion breeding was based at the John Innes Institute whilst rootstock breeding took place at East Malling. This programme released ‘F12/1’, ‘Cob’ and ‘Charger’ as well as ‘Colt’ that is still used for conventional orchards in many areas. In the 1980s, government rationalization of research saw both breeding programmes merged at the East Malling site. A period of stable public funding followed when genetic diversity of the cherry germplasm was greatly improved with the introduction of cultivars and species material from around the world. The main breeding objectives during this time were late-ripening cherries with low susceptibility to cracking and rots. Introgression of resistance/tolerance to canker (Pseudomonas syringae) and blackfly (Myzus cerasi) into cultivated cherries as well as the development of molecular tools to characterise and elucidate the mechanisms of self(in)compatibility were also key to the programme. Hand pollination of emasculated flowers, seedling evaluation on their own roots and trials using ‘Colt’ as a common rootstock were common practise during that period and scion varieties ‘Penny’ (2001) and ‘Zoë’ (2008) were released as a result.

Following the withdrawal of public funding for tree fruit breeding in the UK, the East Malling Cherry Group was formed in 2010 to utilise the existing germplasm pipeline at East Malling and engage in further breeding In 2018 Berry Gardens Growers Ltd will become a member of this group together with NIAB EMR and the Associated International Group of Nurseries (AIGN), led by Marzena Lipska.  As the head of the cherry breeding programme, Lipska is responsible for all decisions about crosses, selections and trials.  Once a selection passes through the initial phases and small scale trials of natural cross-breeding, the venture’s other two partners, BGG and AIGN, begin the process of commercialisation of the newly released cultivar. Commercialisation includes intellectual property protection, marketing and licensing as well as large scale propagation of new fruit trees.

BGG is a grower-owned co-operative providing sales and marketing services to its members. It is the largest horticultural co-operative in the United Kingdom (UK) with grower-members located in all the principal growing regions.  Originally specialising in berries, BGG now includes substantial areas of cherries within their membership and they are driving innovation throughout the industry.

BGG financially supports the cherry breeding programme at East Malling and promotes its selections to their growers.  Outside of the United Kingdom, AIGN® employs their extensive network of member-nurseries to test the selections in different cherry growing regions around the world, and then propagate, protect and promote the selections. 

AIGN® brings to the collaboration the benefit of their trademark database program, Hertha™.   Hertha™ facilitates the tracking of numbered selections in trials, maps the plantings and collects data and evaluations of the fruit. It also tracks benchmark registrations, holds contracts and manages timelines for trademark applications and deadlines.

A number of elite crosses, derived from the breeding programme, will be distributed amongst the Malling Cherry Ventures partners in the near future in order to begin evaluation of the cultivars throughout the world.

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