It all starts with the seed, and Rebecca Catlett, produce chain manager for the Americas for Nunhems USA, Parma, Idaho, wants people to know that.
The conversation among channels in the fresh produce industry drives the development of new seed varieties because it lets researchers know what areas require focus.
“We try to get the word out that the seed is where it all starts,” Catlett said.
She said the challenge of opening communication lines between growers, retailers and the foodservice industry will help seed companies create better products because they’ll have a better idea of consumer and grower needs.
“One thing that’s important for the seed industry as a whole is the conversation. We need them to tell us their needs so we can learn what we need to be looking at,” she said.
Catlett’s staff attends produce events and works with growers to build contacts. They want to change the notion that food begins at the farm.
“Even though more companies are learning about this, you hardly ever hear about anything before the farm gate, so that’s something to focus on,” she said.
The effort to increase communication is reflected by the desire of seed companies to work with growers and consumers.
“While there is more focus on taste and appearance, seed breeders must still satisfy the grower’s need for yield and consistency,” Art Abbott, president and chief executive officer of Abbott & Cobb Inc., Feasterville, Pa., said.
“The vegetable market is driven by an increasingly consolidated, integrated and international value chain striving to fulfill the needs of consumers and retail in terms of quality, affordability and sustainability of produce,” Scott Langkamp, head of vegetables in North America for Syngenta, Boise, Idaho, said.
It’s a challenge to meet the agronomic needs of growers, the postharvest needs of retailers and the needs of consumers, he said. However, Syngenta invests heavily in research and development to seek solutions, Langkamp said. The company seeks to increase productivity by providing high yields for growers and premium products for the entire supply chain, he said.
Other seed companies agree.
“We’re looking for a high-quality end product for consumers with an adequate disease pack for growers,” John Nance, product development manager at Hazera Seeds Inc., Coral Springs, Fla., said.
“Most of the grower needs are addressed with regards to yield and disease resistance,” Lisa Zaglin, marketing manager for Abbott & Cobb, said. “The consumer-driven factors — demand for more consistent quality, improved food safety, better appearance and taste — are making the food chain connection much tighter.”
Increased communication helps seed companies balance the needs of its customers, both from the grower and retailer perspective.
“With the consumer demand for quality produce on a 12-month cycle, seed companies need to provide varieties that can be grown under diverse growing conditions in different regions, all delivering high yields of quality vegetables,” Zaglin said.
When the system works correctly, both growers and consumers have their needs met with successful new produce options.
However, grower needs often come first during the seed development process.
“If the grower can’t grow it, there won’t be any product for the end market,” Nance said. “But there’s always an eye on the end result of having a tastier product with a longer shelf life.”
“Our breeders first focus on meeting the agronomic needs of growers. We want to make sure our customers can produce the produce in an efficient manner,” Catlett said.
Once they’ve done that, they turn their attention to how to provide better output traits for consumers.
The two needs often coincide, though, because better grower input traits result in better output traits.
“If we introduce a new variety to growers that has benefits for them, we help them position that product to their customers so they can see the consumer benefits as well,” Catlett said.