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60 Seconds with Gina Fernandez

John D. and Nell R. Leazar Distinguished Professor of Horticultural Science

Photograph by Marc Hall ’20 MA, NC State.

By Caroline Barnhill ’05

Gina Fernandez is a leading strawberry, blackberry and raspberry breeder and heads the Small Fruits Extension Program.

How does the small fruits Extension group serve growers?
We hold annual meetings with growers where we present information on production, pruning and training — as well as present findings on research we’ve conducted over the year. We do a lot of on-farm trials, whether it’s fertility studies or evaluation of new cultivars. We try to respond to the growers’ needs for research, which in turn enables us to move the science forward.

What makes a “good” strawberry?
Nice sugar-acid balance, some aromatics — either peachy or sherry — and, of course, texture. We don’t like our berries too firm, but firm enough to last a while in the refrigerator.

How has the berry industry grown in the 25-plus years you’ve been at NC State?
Berries have become much more popular. When I was growing up, berries were only available for a short period of time. Now they’re available year-round, even if they’re coming from other places in the country. We have strawberry growers in almost every North Carolina county — about half being smaller “pick-your-own” growers and half larger commercial growers who also ship up the East Coast.

Your work has been instrumental in developing a commercial blackberry industry in western North Carolina. How did that come about?
I had been conducting yield trials for blackberries and raspberries for many years and could see that blackberries could grow well in the western part of the state. There was a company from Florida that was looking to extend its blackberry production into North Carolina, so I connected them with growers. From there, our Extension service helped those growers learn the basics of growing and harvesting blackberries.

After all these years of working with berries, do you still like eating them?
I always get excited eating my first few at the beginning of each season. Toward the end, not so much.

Favorite way to eat strawberries?
On salad — salad greens, sliced red onion, fresh strawberries with a sweet poppy seed dressing. 

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