JWE Rocket Breeding Project – Fighting Food Waste with Fridgelife

7th November 2017

When we started our rocket breeding project I was warned by my fellow director (aka The Husband) that these things take time. And patience. A whole lot of patience. This is not a quality I am generally known for. We started working on our new rocket variety back in early 2013 and now, as we approach the end of 2017, we seem to be getting somewhere near actual commercial volumes appearing (and by near, I mean about 8 months away, so you can see the issue if patience is not your forte).Varietal developments are forever bandied around as the solution to many of the woes and problems discussed in the fresh produce industry. New varieties! New characteristics! It seems so easy to say. Invent me a new rocket variety! The reality is a daunting mountain of a project. We started by being very hands on. We closed off a multi span poly tunnelled house, sent some bees in and then threshed by hand. That mountain was Everest and we were wearing summer dresses to climb it.

Enlisting one of Italy’s top babyleaf seed houses as our partner and gratefully welcoming back our Italian Operations Manager from maternity leave we switched tack, regrouped and continued.

A first cut rocket leaf that was robust in shelf life, colour, leaf thickness and also carried the characteristic zig zag leaf shape of recut rocket has always been the aim. The UK commercial preference for recut rocket creates a real rotational challenge for Italian rocket producers who are left with a surplus of first cut rocket to move onto the Italian domestic market. Moving the whole amount is a real challenge and this is a point in the chain where large amounts of unnecessary food waste at farm is created.

You cannot cheat your way to recut rocket either (we’ve tried!). Unless the first cut rocket is grown to full size and harvested the next rocket crop will not present the ideal recut varieties.

Using research done by Southampton University on cell walls in babyleaf cut salad we used conductivity as our main filter for shelf life and robustness. This focus was followed by trialling only on our farms where the rocket variety was destined to be used which added a filter for the particular type of soil there and the need for fusarium resistance.

Due to the dramatic changes in the growing conditions over the year in Italy we need two varieties so currently the trials and assessments seem endless. We are halfway there with our summer variety to be available at the end of summer 2018 and in the JWE offices there are fierce arguments over the winter trials. Everyone is standing firm behind their preferred favourite and their reason for their preference. Taste? Shape? Homogeneity? Shelf life? Which one is the most important factor?

We are passionate about babyleaf salad and want to supply only the freshest and tastiest product. We are also passionate about food waste. We want to eliminate critical points in the chain where product is grown simply to be chucked and we see shelf life extension as the main win for cutting down food waste in the home. Fridge life is our focus, the longer baby leaf can stay fresh in the fridge and the more meals it can be used in over the week the less likely it is that the leaves end up in the bin.