Oct 17, 2008
Shifting Acreage, Consumer Demand Shape Seed Industry

Consumer-oriented traits like taste, size, shape, texture and color have been reshaping the vegetable seed industry for years, but recent shifts in acreage toward local markets or commodity crops have been at least as influential, according to industry insiders.

The buy-local movement has been felt throughout all of agriculture. Vegetable seeds are no exception. Higher fuel prices are partially to blame for the shift toward local markets, which only makes sense to Rick Falconer, general manager of American Takii, a vegetable and flower seed company in Salinas, Calif.

When shipping a product costs more than the product itself, it’s time to start looking closer to home, he said.

Growers are starting to see opportunities in their local markets, and older growing areas are starting to come back into production. American Takii is getting more requests for varieties that grow well in those areas, Falconer said.

California has always been a big market for broccoli seed, for example, but lately, American Takii has been getting more requests from customers in the Midwest and Southeast who are looking for broccoli varieties adaptable to those areas. The market for home gardeners also seems to be doing well. People are staying home more and growing their own produce, or buying it from the roadside market down the street, Falconer said.

The rising price of commodity crops has caused other changes. Biofuel initiatives and other factors have made corn more profitable, causing growers to plant that crop at the expense of specialty vegetables. That shift has put pressure on vegetable seed production.

“There’s only so much good seed production land out there,” said Dan Bailey, director of sales and product development in the United States and Canada for Harris Moran, a vegetable seed company in Modesto, Calif.

Commodity crops are easier to grow than produce, so it makes sense to switch to them during profitable periods, said Charlene Woodruff, who owns Rainbow Valley Seed in West Liberty, Ohio, with her husband, Douglas Woodruff.

Shifts in the business landscape have led to more changes. Several large tomato growers in Florida, for example, have gone out of business recently, and Mexican growers have picked up some of the slack. This has caused a shift from open-field U.S. production to protected – greenhouse or plastic – Mexican production. Protected production requires tomato seeds with different characteristics. Seed producers have to meet those requirements, said Andreas Steiner, marketing director for Syngenta’s North American vegetable business. Steiner is based in Boise, Idaho.

In another shift, the shortage of water in California and other areas is driving growers to plant more perennial crops – such as tree fruit – at the expense of vegetables, which generally consume more water, Steiner said.

Consumer traits

Consumer desires for good taste and a wholesome appearance are constantly forcing seed producers to stay innovative. Sweet corn growers, for example, are looking for varieties with good eating quality and resistance to disease. Improvements are always being made, said Rick Siegers, owner of Siegers Seed Co. in Holland, Mich.

“A lot of growers are looking for newer and better,” Siegers said. “That’s how they stay on top, or ahead, of the market.”

There’s a trend toward darker color and better eating quality in green beans, and watermelon varieties with a crisper, sweeter taste, dark red interior and no seeds. The pumpkin market is growing rapidly, but also segmenting. Customer needs are more diverse. Chain stores, roadside stands and others want varieties ranging in size from 1 pound to 40 pounds. Different shapes, sizes and colors also are in demand – anything that sets a pumpkin apart and increases its value, said Harris Moran’s Bailey.

Personal-sized melons are becoming more popular, as well as different flesh colors and textures. The typical 5-7 pound orange cantaloupe doesn’t cut it anymore – not in the eastern half of the country, according to Jamie Hoffman, president of Outstanding Seed Co. in Monaca, Pa.

Hoffman said there’s more of a demand for untreated seed today (a development he didn’t foresee 10 years ago), and eating quality continues to be a major factor. Chefs have become more active in the communication chain between growers, distributors and sellers, he said.

There’s been a bit of a push for blue or red single-colored Indian corn varieties among corn chip producers, but Rainbow Valley’s Charlene Woodruff didn’t consider that a major trend.

“They’re always looking for good corns that will hold color when cooked,” she said.

Due to labor shortages, growers also are looking for varieties that can be mechanically harvested – or are less labor-intensive, Syngenta’s Steiner said.

Steiner also mentioned changing exchange rates between the United States and Canada, which have slowed down the growth of the Canadian greenhouse industry. When the U.S. dollar was worth more, Canadian exporters made more money selling in the United States. The near equality of the two currencies of late – coupled with higher energy prices – has taken a toll on the profitability of Canadian greenhouse growers, Steiner said.

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