Lately, when Sakata Seed America holds its regular vegetable seed trial events for the trade near its home office in Morgan Hill, CA, there is a new classification of observer.
These events have always attracted growers, shippers and seed distributors, but recently a fair number of retailers have also found time to discover what's happening at the genetic level.
"We have been very close to retailers on the ornamental side for many, many years," said John Nelson, Sakata's senior sales manager. "But now we are seeing the same thing happen on the vegetable side. And we are very open to that."
Mr. Nelson said that on the flower side, which represents a significant portion of Sakata's business, the major retailers selling nursery items have always been interested in offering a unique product to their customers. They have interacted with seed breeders for years hoping to get exclusivity on that special flower variety.
"Home Depot wants to carry something that Lowe's doesn't have," Mr. Nelson said explaining it in very simple terms.
On the vegetable side, he said the motivation is a bit different. While every retailer likes exclusivity, Mr. Nelson said more importantly they are just looking for more information and want to be better informed. In this information age, he said everyone wants to just have more information and know about the products they sell and what is coming down the pike.
Jeff Trickett, director of marketing for Bejo Seeds Inc., headquartered in Oceano, CA, also discussed retail involvement in the seed business. Bejo Seeds, he said, is expanding its effort to connect with all segments of the industry. Rather than just breeding for durability and yield, the company is involving retailers and consumers in the research and development process to develop varieties that fit their needs as well.
In fact, he said that retailers have helped increase the sales for the firm's new tomato variety, Tasti-Lee, which is being positioned as a higher priced, specialty tomato with superior taste. Retailers, he said have embraced the concept of establishing a consistent market price for the item and are helping to increase demand for the seed itself.
Mr. Nelson said that Sakata is currently dealing with a specific chain that has interest in an early maturing watermelon variety that the seed company recently trialed. The new variety matures quicker than typical watermelon, which means it uses less water and other resources and has a more "green footprint."
The chain, he said, likes the idea that they can sell the resulting watermelon and tout its sustainability.
Both seed company executives said that the locally grown movement embraced by consumers and retailers is also having an impact on the seed business. Mr. Nelson said that Sakata is very much in concert with that concept and is trialing its seed varieties in many different areas.
"Broccoli is a great example," he said. "Ninety percent of all broccoli used to be grown in California and Arizona. That number is probably down to 70 percent. We are seeing much more demand [for seed] in the Southeast, along the Eastern Seaboard and even in the Northeast and Canada."
He said the company's researchers continually check their existing seed inventory against temperature and humidity requirements in various growing areas to determine what varieties will work where.
"Often times, it means going back and looking at existing varieties to see what will work in a new region," he said.
Mr. Trickett said that the locally grown market is being fueled by the consumers' desire to get something fresher.
"If we do our jobs well, there can be a lot of commercially produced products that probably don't qualify as being locally grown but can still be very good product, good eating, and deliver that value to the consumer that we're just not doing now as an industry,” he said. “Tomatoes-on-the-vine are a textbook example. Here's a product that does a good job of selling itself. You walk in the store, it's on the vine, this looks like it must be better, it smells good, but you're selling a bill of goods to the consumer: you go home, it doesn't eat better. But consumers want something that's better so badly."
He said that if seed companies and growers devote more attention toward flavor and freshness, the sales of fruits and vegetables could explode.
But of course, seed companies never lose sight of their No. 1 customer -- the grower. Mr. Nelson said the three most important attributes to a grower are still "yield, yield and yield."
He said growers, of course, want a better-tasting product but it has to perform in the field or it's a non-starter.
However, he added that retailers and others that attend the company's seed trial days will rarely see a variety that doesn't perform well in the field. By the time it reaches the public trial stage, it has to have shown good agronomic traits.
"At least that's true 90 percent of the time," Mr. Nelson said. "There are exceptions. Broccolini is a great, great example of that. As we were developing it, we saw that it was not a grower-friendly product ... and it still isn't. But it had some other great attributes. And our grower partner [Mann Packing] recognized that. It costs a lot more to grow than broccoli but it does very well in the marketplace and its mainstay at white tablecloth restaurants with 10-plus years of sales growth."