It is a dingy winter-gray basement warren strewn with the trappings of scholarship, but down here is romance, even poetry, because Gene Galletta is on a rhapsodic roll that will stretch out well past supper time.
He is talking about the strawberry.
However dear it may be to the palate, the strawberry is not a heavy hitter as agricultural crops go. Americans consume perhaps no more than two pounds of the fruit per capita each year. But it is important nonetheless to farmers and consumers, and that is why it is Galletta's driving passion.
The passion is fueled by the eternal quest for the perfect berry -- tasty, aromatic, good size, resistant to disease and insect, growable over wide areas in longer seasons. But Galletta's basic motivator is this: "I'd like to be able to give consumers a series of berries throughout the year so when they bit into that fruit they'd be glad they were alive that day."
Galletta is a geneticist, one of a handful in the world who works full time on improving the strawberry, and director of the small fruits laboratory at the Agriculture Department's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.
From this laboratory and the work it directs at outposts around the country during the past two decades has come an array of new varieties of strawberries, thornless blackberries and blueberries, all of which have offered new marketing opportunities to farmers and new tastes for consumers.
The significance of this, at least as far as the strawberry goes, is that Galletta and his colleagues and their recent predecessors have come up with varieties that have allowed farmers in the East and the Midwest to better compete with the long-season market dominance of California and Florida.
"Their work and efforts have made a substantial contribution to keeping us eastern growers with a good competitive product," said Tim Nourse, a farmer and nurseryman from South Deerfield, Mass., who is also president of the North American Strawberry Growers Association.
"They have helped us keep in business with measly research budgets. We asked Congress to increase the small fruit research budget $150,000 last year but it wasn't even considered," Nourse added. "What would that do to help growers become more productive? Aside from the nursery industry, which supplies the plants, it touches consumers and all farmers who would be involved for the additional income the strawberry can provide."
The newest of the Beltsville releases is the Lateglow, a berry tailored to fruit toward the end of the June season and to complement the previous Earliglow, which since its release in 1975 has become a powerful favorite of commercial growers in this region.
Between them, in 1981, came the increasingly popular Allstar, another of the June-bearers, and the ever-bearing Tribute and Tristar, all started by Donald H. Scott before his retirement and completed by Galletta and his associate A.D. Draper and the University of Maryland's Harry J. Swartz.
Tribute and Tristar, in Galletta's view, represent the acme. As prolific producers, they offer farmers and berry lovers three crops per year. Hardy plants because of their Rocky Mountain genes, they will tolerate bitter cold of the North and East. Disease and pest-resistant, they need less toxic chemicals.
These two varieties, in increasing demand by eastern growers because of these features, hold enormous profit potential. A young New York farmer who stopped by to visit Galletta last week told of grossing about $50,000 an acre with the Tristar in 1987 by shipping his berries to Manhattan specialty markets until frost.
"Dr. Scott started the research emphasis on the ever-bearing fruit for the home grower, to have it yearlong, but he wanted the resistance that the June bearers have and the hardiness for cold weather," Galletta said. "It has been uncannily successful."
But none of this occurred quickly. The Tristar and Tribute were more than 20 years in the making as first Scott, and then Galletta and Draper, with the help of breeders nationwide, worked to find the genetic combinations that would produce the berry they wanted.
After Scott retired in 1975, the berries went through six more years of testing and observation before their release to the public. They were given the "tri" prefix because of their ability to flower and bear fruit in three seasons.
One of the types was dubbed Tristar because, Scott felt, it sparkled like a star when held to the sun. Tribute was a "beaut," clearly, but the name was chosen because "it would be our summer tribute to the American public, if you will," Galletta said.
The work goes on at Beltsville, as Galletta and his associates continue examining and crossing dozens of types of berries in that quest for the perfect fruit. For example, Galletta is working to incorporate the beguiling aroma of two European berries into American varieties, but he has found they do not cross well. At the same time, he is looking for plants that will stand stress better.
Such trials involve thousands of plants and many years as scientists winnow out the weak sisters and subject the experimental types to field conditions on farms and research plots around the country. Far more are discarded than are eventually offered to the consumer.
"To introduce a new selection, I would have to be able to say it is better than a standard variety in several areas and as good as the standard in all the rest. And it would have to fit a particular market niche," Galletta said.
Once a variety is chosen for release, the germplasm -- matrix plants -- goes to nurserymen such as Tim Nourse, who then propagate the plants on a large scale and sell them to home and commercial growers. When the successful New York grower stops by to thank him, Galletta's day is made.
Galletta came to his science and his three academic degrees naturally -- as a worker on the New Jersey blueberry farm that his father and uncles operated. A gift of sensitivity came from his immigrant grandfather, who tried to teach his precise weed-hoeing techniques to his young grandsons.
Galletta was a tad embarrassed telling the story, fearing that he might be seen as a zany: After he had cleared the weeds away, Nonno Galletta would hold up a plant and say to the boys, "Can't you hear the plant saying 'Thank you'? " As Galletta put it, "I was the only brother who heard the plants say 'Thank you.' "
That is not zany, any green thumb will testify.