Oct 15, 2007
Vegetable Seeds Have to Stand Out From the Crowd

If there’s an industry trend seed companies can agree on, it’s that vegetable growers are looking for something different, something that makes their products stand out from the crowd.

Reed’s Seeds, based in Cortland, N.Y., sells mostly cabbage seeds to growers throughout North America. Owner Don Reed said the demand for cole slaw has increased somewhat thanks to the fast food industry, but demand for sauerkraut and fresh-market table stock has gone down because people aren’t cooking at home as much. However, demand for pre-processed salad mixes has gone up, Reed said.

Outstanding Seed Co., Monaca, Pa., sells to growers and dealers all over the United States. The company concentrates on pumpkins, winter squash and gourds, with a little work in melons, peppers and tomatoes. According to Outstanding’s President Jamie Hoffman, consumers are spending more money every year on decorative products, driving pumpkin and gourd growers to look for anything different, unique or weird to offer – even if they don’t always know what that is.

“They can’t describe it until they see it,” he said.

Outstanding Seed introduced a product line this year called Hybrid Weird Things – powdery mildew-resistant pumpkins with weird shapes, sizes, colors or textures. Tycoon, for instance, is a flattened, 10-pound pumpkin. The skin is white with green stripes, which mature to orange stripes. A sister to Tycoon with good eating quality will come out next year, Hoffman said.

Pumpkin growers have always sought powdery mildew-resistant varieties, but lately they’ve been seeking resistance to downy mildew as well, he said.

Like pumpkin growers, melon growers are looking for something different. They used to want larger melons, but the trend lately has been smaller sizes. In tomatoes, eating quality is popular – even at the expense of appearance, Hoffman said.

Harris Seed Co., Rochester, N.Y., sells sweet corn, pumpkin, squash, tomato, cucumber and other fresh-market variety seeds to growers throughout the country, concentrating on the Northeast and Midwest. President Dick Chamberlin has seen a rise in demand for organic and sustainable products, but the single biggest trend is the increasing popularity of farmers’ markets and for locally grown, fresh vegetables.

In addition, more novelty vegetables are showing up in the marketplace – vegetables from Asia and other produce not commonly found in chain stores, Chamberlin said.

For Harris Moran in Modesto, Calif., pumpkins are one of the few markets that are growing, according to Dan Bailey, eastern region manager.

Roadside markets that focus on agritainment are demanding a broad range of pumpkins for carving, display and other uses – the more unusual, the better. For example, Harris Moran is offering Warlock, a 30- to 35-pound pumpkin with a big handle, deep orange color and bumpy surface. Gladiator is uniform, with a deep orange color and large handles, Bailey said.

Harris Moran is working on the consumer-oriented approach to its offerings, such as tomatoes with better appearance and flavor. The company is using consumer taste panels and other tools to gauge the value of newer and older varieties, he said.

In response to increasing challenges, some growers are expanding their operations, trying to put themselves in position to supply produce year round. That trend has picked up pace in the last couple years, Bailey said.

American Takii, Salinas, Calif., provides vegetable and flower seeds to dealers throughout North America. Rick Falconer, general manger, said the demand for heirloom and old-style, home-garden varieties has picked up in the last two years.

“What’s old is new again,” he said.

There used to be maybe two types of tomatoes in supermarket produce departments: Beefsteaks and Romas. Now, customers are demanding all kinds of flavors or other characteristics – anything unique.

“Farmers and produce companies are approaching seed companies and asking for something different, something that stands out from the pack,” Falconer said. “You’ll usually get some interest from somebody if your product tastes a little different, looks different or has a different color.”

Organic produce is still popular, but there’s been more of an emphasis on locally grown lately. Seed companies are being challenged to breed for smaller, more diverse markets. Even major market players are starting to demand more specialty items, Falconer said.

Siegers Seed Co. in Holland, Mich., distributes everything from asparagus to zucchini seed to commercial growers east of the Mississippi River. Owner Rick Siegers said his company is always on the lookout for new and different products. Siegers’ extensive trialing program and product development staff are focused on making customers profitable.

“When they make money, we make money,” Siegers said.

The country’s changing demographics are changing the demand for vegetable seeds. The Asian and Hispanic markets have expanded, and growers would be wise to take advantage of that trend, he said.

There are fewer major players in the seed-breeding industry due to consolidation. Smaller players have been bought up, and larger companies with more resources are releasing more new products. All the research and development being done has added to the cost of the products being released, Siegers said.

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