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July 16, 2014

James Hancock: A new breed

July 16, 2014

James Hancock is a professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and MSU AgBioResearch expert blueberry breeder. He has released four of the most popular Northern Highbush blueberry varieties in the world: Draper, Liberty, Aurora and Huron. Hancock’s innovations regarding these varieties of Northern Highbush blueberries represent highly productive means of generating flavorful and long-lasting blueberries. Approximately 20 million plants of these four varieties have been sold. Michigan has been the No. 1 blueberry-producing state for the last 70 years, partly due to the Hancock varieties.

The idea of breeding blueberry varieties came to me in about 1990. I’d been at MSU about 20 years then. But, I decided that the time was right to develop new varieties, and there were a number of good reasons for that.

One is that Arlen Draper (the great USDA fruit breeder who developed the cultivars and germplasms that I was able to utilize) had retired so no one was really going to focus on Northern Highbush blueberries that are for cold climates. (Northern highbush blueberries are the most popularly grown commercial blueberry in North America).

Another is that the varieties in Michigan had been grown in the state for a long time. Many of the varieties were 50 years old.

It was time to make some real innovations. We had a couple of really nice windows that we could go after.

One was in the middle of the season when we had one variety that was widely planted. We had this pile of fruit all coming in at the same time. It wouldn’t store very long so our growers were getting limited amounts of money for that crop.

And we also had this window in Michigan where we were the last producers of blueberries, so we had a really good price at the end of the season. But we only had one variety in that part of the season.

Therefore, we had a couple of really nice areas that we could focus our efforts on. By about 2004 the first of my varieties were released after many long years of careful testing.

I have been flabbergasted by the success of the MSU blueberry varieties. We hit a tremendous period of luck. It turns out that about the time we were releasing the new varieties, the blueberry industry in the world was just exploding.

When I started the breeding process Michigan was by far the leading blueberry state and there was significant, but not huge, acreage in the Pacific Northwest and in Europe.
The industry in Chile was just beginning. It turned out that just about the time we were releasing our varieties Chile exploded as a huge market, as did the Pacific Northwest and subsequently Europe and Asia.

My varieties hit the blueberry wave at the industry’s absolute peak and that wave is still going. Being a successful entrepreneur is not only being really smart and figuring out what’s needed, but also being tremendously lucky and hitting that wave when it’s really rolling.

Photo by Kurt Stepntiz