WOODLAND, Calif. — Talk to most of the product managers and breeders of Sakata Seed America Inc.’s warm-season crops, and some of the first words out of their mouths will likely be about flavor or taste.
“Whenever we develop any plant, we eat it — we’re tasting the melons,” said Lakhwinder Randhawa, melon breeder. “Even our inbred lines have flavor. If you have genes for flavor, then your hybrids will have that flavor.”
That’s not to say that agronomic traits, such as yield, disease-fighting properties and longer shelf life aren’t important. Randhawa pointed to Infinite Gold, a long shelf-life cantaloupe that Sakata released last year, as an example.
The firm this season released Timeless Gold, a closely-related hybrid that produces a few more 12s and a few less 9s than Infinite Gold. Both are resistant to Fusarium; powdery mildew races 1, 2 and the super race; produce high yields and have a longer shelf life than traditional western shippers.
But one of the traits Randhawa said he is most proud of is their aromatic, musky flavor that’s reminiscent of a western shipper.
As part of week-long field trials, he handed out samples and showed off the plants in the field to grower-shippers, seed dealers and retailers who attended the Aug. 13 field day.
In an August 2013 sensory evaluation by SCS Global Services, Infinite Gold ranked higher than a competitor’s long shelf life melon and an experimental Sakata melon.
Like most other long shelf life melons, these two don’t slip from the vine when ripe but instead have to be clipped by harvest crews. They also have a slightly grayer color than traditional western shippers, traits that retailers may need to learn about.
Melons aren’t the only warm-season crop where flavor is the focus.
Sakata Seed America’s line of specialty tomatoes that includes grapes and cherries are the result of attention paid to them after Hiroshi Takahashi retired as company president in May 2007, said Kim Nerli, pepper and tomato product manager.
During his tenure, Takahashi had pushed efforts to breed high-quality tomatoes demanded by Japanese consumers. But Nerli said he was ashamed that the company didn’t have comparable varieties to offer the North American market. Takahashi, who is semi-retired, launched the “Valentine project” in the company to do just that.
The effort taps into varieties developed by the company’s breeders in Japan and uses those traits to breed varieties suited to North American growing conditions, Nerli said.
Sweet Hearts, an oval red grape, was one of the first introductions. Since then, Sakata has bred a host of round and oval red grape tomatoes that include Amai, Bellastar, Oribustar, Sweet Elite, Sweet Mojo and Sweet Zen. Complementing the red types are yellow grapes Solid Gold and Sweet Canary.
Overall, Nerli said consumption of specialty tomatoes continues to grow as consumers seek out new and different produce items.
The market for cherry tomatoes had been stagnant for the past four or five years but appears to have rebounded the past one to two years, she said.
“I think there wasn’t a good flavor profile in the cherries that was available,” Nerli said. “As the flavor profiles are improving, the consumers start trying them and then they start seeking them out.”
Sakata’s cherry tomato line includes the red Sweet Chelsea and Sweet Million, the yellow Sweet Gold, the orange Oranjestar and the pink Sweet Treats.