Seed companies continue to work to meet the needs of their customers’ customers — retailers.
Growers still need varieties that resist disease, develop great color and yield well, but interest in shelf life and flavor is also high.
“As we see more direct relationships building between retail and foodservice, and a more active interest in variety development from retail, we’re seeing a stronger demand for characteristics such as flavor, aroma and shelf life,” said Alicia Suits, communications and public relations manager for Sakata Seed America.
Jean-Francois Thomin, marketing manager for Enza Zaden in the U.S. and Canada, described flavor as one of the major opportunities for companies developing varieties.
“This is the right time for the fresh produce industry to capitalize on the demand for delicious fruits and vegetables,” Thomin said. “Because it is so difficult to quantify, flavor assessments have been historically missing from fresh produce conversations and quality evaluations.
“However, we are in a culinary transition with younger generations asking for flavorful, natural and healthy food," Thomin said.
As much as growers aim to prioritize what matters to retailers and consumers, they still need seeds that give them the best possible situation in the fields.
“Commodity trends are very similar by category as growers look to maximize efficiency in production per area and increase marketable yield in a sustainable way,” said Javier Martinez-Cabrera, head of North America for the vegetable seeds business of Syngenta. “New traits help increase productivity and quality while advances in integrated pest and disease management help growers minimize inputs.”
Sakata has seen trends develop based on the shift of growing regions.
“(For) broccoli, as acreage in Mexico and the southeast U.S. grows, so does the demand for heat tolerance in varieties,” Suits said.
Thomin noted that giving growers what they need in seeds is key to keeping produce affordable.
“That (happens) by developing high-yielding, resistant and widely adaptable varieties,” Thomin said. “Year-round supply is another critical point.”
John Purcell, global vegetable research and development lead for Monsanto Co., also said varieties need to solve problems for growers.
“Some examples of new varieties that address challenges include our High Rise broccoli varieties, which feature uniformity and tall, clean stalks, making harvest easier, and Tamarack cauliflower, which is bred for good plant coverage for the sunny desert regions,” Purcell said.
While growers favor some different traits depending on which crops they grow and where their operations are, some factors are universal.
“We do see certain trends, such as land and water availability, labor concerns, and a few others that are reoccurring challenges farmers face, regardless of their location and what they grow,” Purcell said.
Enza Zaden has been looking ahead to make sure it has products optimized for a time when people are no longer doing the picking.
“An industry — such as the melon industry — will considerably change the day mechanical harvest becomes a reality,” Thomin said. “It is not technically feasible yet, but we are getting close. Only a strong cooperation between growers’ research teams and a seed breeding company can deliver on this innovation.”
Traits that make a melon more amenable to mechanical harvesting include concentrated fruit sets, superior tolerance for sunburn so fruit can stay in the field longer, and significantly enhanced shelf life with no loss to flavor, Thomin said.
All four companies reported strong interest from producers in trying out new seeds.
Martinez-Cabrera noted numerous varieties have been gaining ground lately.
“Outlaw, a new bean variety, has straight, glossy pods with attractive dark color that appeals to consumers,” Martinez-Cabrera said. “Accolade and Astound, our two new eastern shipper melons, offer improved, firmer flesh, a small cavity and consistently high yields.
“In sweet corn, our bicolor super-sweet shipper varieties, BSS1075 and BSS8021, are gaining momentum due to high yield, excellent shipping abilities and adaptability to tough conditions,” Martinez-Cabrera said.
The Infinite Gold cantaloupe has been very successful for Sakata, and its new broccoli varieties Diamante, Millennium and Emerald Star have been gaining traction as well.
“Also we are seeing a lot of positive feedback regarding our spinach program, more specifically Lakeside, Oceanside, Riverside and Seaside,” Suits said.
“Our newer determinate salad tomatoes Camaro and Grand Marshall are performing very well in the Southeast, showing strong plants, good fruit quality and good field performance under bacterial spot pressure.”
Enza Zaden has received interest for its Eazyleaf lettuce, with good shelf life and strong but flexible leaves.
“Consumers enjoy the visual appeal of uniformly sized leaf shapes in a variety of colors, now including dark reds with high gloss,” Thomin said. “Growers, especially growers located in the Salinas Valley, have been able to capitalize on the growing demand for Eazyleaf varieties.”
Enza Zaden has also enjoyed attention for its Tribelli mini peppers, Thomin said.
Purcell said Monsanto puts out close to 50 new products each year.
“Some of our latest variety launches, which we have seen high demand for by farmers, include Devotion II, a Performance Series white sweet corn variety; Magnetic, our latest high-quality spinach variety with great yield potential; Tailgate, the newest member of our SummerSlice watermelon line; Hornet, a low-pungency white onion; and Flavor Journey, a new honeydew variety with high quality fruit and an average of 14-18 degrees brix — meaning very sweet-tasting,” Purcell said.
Since it takes a considerable amount of time to develop varieties, seed companies are doing their research in an effort to be ahead of the trends.
“We have to rely on what we’re seeing internally, in the field, on retail shelves, on menus and everywhere else to best ‘predict’ what the market will want by the time a variety is ready to be released to the market,” Suits said. “It’s a very exciting and challenging process (that) our entire team is incredibly passionate about.”