A desert climate may not be conducive to growing raspberries, but one of the world’s top raspberry and strawberry breeders hails from scorching Israel.

It can take 10 to 15 years to perfect a new variety of raspberry and strawberry plants. Some are bred to be tolerant to fungus, taste like wild berries, or produce bigger fruit. Working in British Columbia for Agriculture Canada, many of the world’s most popular berry varieties pass through the hands of Chaim Kempler — the Israeli-Canadian plant breeder whose training first started in Israel decades ago.

Born in 1946 to a Polish Jewish family, Kempler first studied horticulture and agriculture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and then secured a lab technician job at the Volcani Center, a government-run agriculture institute known the world over for its plant breeding programs. There, he worked on peppers.

By the age of 30, Kempler had the itch to advance his career and moved to Canada with his wife and two sons to attend the University of Guelph. He almost immediately started working for Agriculture Canada to improve small berry varieties for sustainable production in the Pacific Northwest regions of Oregon and Washington, and Canada.

Since then, Kempler has been successfully hunting for and breeding new raspberry, strawberry and blueberry varieties for about 31 years. He speaks Hebrew and English, but gives the berries Native American names.

Bite into history with an Ukee or a Skeena

How about a special red raspberry called the Ukee, named for the First Nations people from Ucluelet, a small town on the west coast of Vancouver? There are others called Chilliwack, Skeena and Chilcotin, and strawberries known as Totem.

Kempler doesn’t think that First Nation names are strange at all. It’s a legacy, he tells ISRAEL21c — one that he’s continued from his Canadian predecessor and it is something that plant breeders do in Israel too.

“All our varieties are named using First Nation words,” he says. “This is to make them unique and recognizable that they coming from those regions.” In Israel explains Kempler, “Different varieties of strawberries are named using women’s names. There is Dorit, a kind of strawberry, for example.

So far over the years, about 12 new varieties have been cultivated by Kempler’s, among them the most popular raspberries in the world.

It is important to add that what he’s doing is not genetically modifying the berries, but finding certain traits in nature and mixing these “wild” genes into the gene pool of cultivated varieties. Part of his job requires fieldwork in nature to find naturally occurring varieties that can be bred with the cultivated ones.

An answer to environmental concerns

One of the goals of Kempler’s work is not just to create hearty and tasty varieties – there is an environmental goal too. “We develop varieties that are resistant to disease and insects and which are reducing the impact on the environment. Because [with our varieties] the farmer will use less chemicals: the environment will benefit, the consumer will benefit and the farmer will benefit,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

One major concern for berry growers in the Pacific region of America is something called the bushy dwarf virus transmitted through pollen. Until the new varieties are exposed to real life conditions there is no way to know which ones will be better able to resist the fungus. This is one of the reasons it can take a decade or more to develop a new variety.

Kempler’s story with berries started a long time ago. At least that’s what his mother, who fled to Israel from the Holocaust, tells him. She recalls that he ate raspberries in Europe as a boy.

“When I lived in Israel I never had raspberries or at least not that I remember,” says Kempler who is now working with an Israeli breeder Shmuel Zilkah at the Volcani Institute to develop a breed of berries suitable for the Israeli climate.

A desirable crop to grow

Russian immigrants to Israel are familiar with the sweet and tangy taste and are looking for raspberries in the supermarket. But they are hard to come by and tend to be very expensive.

“It’s a desirable crop to grow,” says Kempler. “If you can grow them you can get very good prices, and now several growers are trying to grow [our varieties] in the Galilee and Ramat HaGolan regions in Israel.”

And his hard work is paying off for Canada and parts of the world where raspberries are loved: “Some of the varieties we’ve grown are the most popular in the world, and have become very successful internationally.

“[Our berries] are grown all over Europe mainly for the high quality fruit and flavor,” adds Kempler who admits he likes the Hebrew word for small berries: “Its parote ya’ar,” he says, which translates to ‘fruit of the forest.’ “Isn’t it lovely,” he says.