Focusing On The Grower

Focusing On The Grower

Gordon, Rosemary O

Experts in the field discuss the changing seed industry including an increased emphasis on meeting the needs of the customer – the grower.

TIMES are changing. There has been consolidation in the industry, the controversial issue of genetically modified seed has been rearing its head, and the search for niche markets for particular varieties continues. So it comes as no surprise that how seed companies do business is changing as well.

As most growers can attest, gone are the days of the barbecues during seed trials where hundreds of people were present. Make no mistake, the trials are still taking place, but they are taking on a more regional focus.

Some large seed companies are determining what varieties grow the best in specific regions and they are marketing the seed products that way. In fact, in some cases, there is a shift from offering one national seed catalog to all growers to supplying growers with just the varieties that grow well in their region of the country. All, however, are not in agreement with this philosophy.

According to one international seed supplier, Seminis Vegetable seeds, the company’s large, national seed catalogs suffered from trying to be all things to all people. “That’s one of the reasons Seminis spends $50 million on research every year,” says Franco Campana, vice president of sales, North America, Seminis Vegetable seeds. “We’re trying to develop varieties to meet specific growing needs in specific growing areas.”

Siegers Seed Co. also has adopted a regional marketing perspective, says Rick Siegers, president. The company has been using this approach for eight years. “Growers are more sophisticated than ever and the competition they encounter demands that we offer products specifically tailored to their needs,” he says.

Dan Burdett, head of Syngenta seeds, Inc. Vegetables NAFTA, Rogers Brand Vegetable seeds, says the company has always attempted to meet the specific demands of its customers. “A grower from the Midwest has different requirements from those in the desert Southwest.

“Our product advancement processes are geographically organized such that the best varieties and hybrids for a specific region rise to the top within that area,” he continues. “We also partner closely with the land grant universities for even more regional evaluation. The result is that growers are assured that new product introductions are thoroughly screened and suitably adapted to their specific growing environments.”

An Established Trend

Brad Kortsen, general manager, Enza Zaden North America, agrees that regionality is not a completely recent trend. He says that for some time Enza Zaden has emphasized a regional or local focus. “Varieties as well as growing practices used in California are normally different from those in Florida. Therefore, our approach to the market must reflect these differences.”

Stokes Seed also has been a company that has practiced a more regional approach to supplying seed. “If anything, the consolidation and globalization of seed suppliers has proven to make varieties suitable to the Northeastern region more difficult to find than in previous years,” says Wayne Gale, Stokes president. “The needs of California, Florida, and more recently Georgia seem to be driving much of the breeding work.”

Offering a different take on the subject, Bruno Carette, president of Harris Moran Seed Co., says the industry isn’t more “regional,” it is more market focused. This trend is structuring the operation of Harris Moran from research and development to marketing and communication, he says.

“We also see shifting on a market basis,” adds Rick Falconer, general manager of American Takii Inc. “seed companies are focusing on different segments of the business, such as organic, heirloom, or some companies even focus on one specific species.”

Rupp seeds’ Roger Rupp, however, goes so far as to say that there is no change in how the seed industry operates. “We are relative newcomers and our company was built initially on small growers,” he says. “That hasn’t changed. Because of demand from Kroger and Wal-Mart, however, there is a segment of growers that has changed.”

Serving The Customer

The marketplace is viewed a bit differently at Johnny’s Selected seeds. Johnny’s serves a customer-type demographic rather than a geographic one, explains Robert Johnston, company chairman and founder.

“Our business plan is to focus on specialty and small growers,” he says. “So our customers are spread throughout the U.S. and Canada, and we export to several dozen countries. We inform our customers in our catalog and through our sales staff if there are regional plusses or minuses with a variety.”

Abbott & Cobb also is expanding its markets outside the U.S. The company has historically been a regional seed company that has grown to include both national and international markets in the last 25 years, says Art Abbott, president. “In the past, national companies did most of their breeding in one location, in one season, and hoped their varieties would be adapted to many locations,” he says.

Regional variety development, however, takes on a new dimension when the focus is disease resistance. For example, John Clifton, president of Clifton seed Co., says tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV) severely impacted tomato production in North Florida and Georgia in recent years. Hybrid tomato varieties such as Amelia from Harris Moran, Muriel from Sakata, and Talladega from Syngenta were created for growers in these areas to fight TSWV.

Because retailers are looking for product differentiation with varieties, it is important to get this information on new market-specific products to growers via dealers, adds Nunhems’ Clark Huffman, director of sales and marketing for the Americas. “The distribution channel needs to be the messenger of this information to the grower.”

On top of that, growers need to know that the demographics in the U.S. are changing. There is more vegetable consumption in the Hispanic markets, and with the rise of the smaller family there is more of a demand for the “mini” varieties of watermelon, zucchini, and squash, says Robert Brown, sales and marketing manager at Golden Valley Seed.

Reaping The Benefits

For the grower, the idea is to look for competing advantages. According to Syngenta’s Burdett, the more tailored his company’s approach is to product development, the more Syngenta is able to help the grower succeed in achieving his individual goals.

Adding another dimension, Seminis’ Campana says that with more and more attention being given to precision agriculture and the science of growing, customers are looking for assurances that the varieties they buy from Seminis are absolutely right for their farm.

All Of The Above

So will the future of the commercial vegetable seed industry be regional, national, or international?

Seminis’ Campana says the answer is all of the above. “We make the same commitment to local research in every one of those countries that we do in the U.S. But we go one step further,” he says. “We then share that information with our Seminis counterparts in other countries. By doing this, we find new products, developed locally, that can be used on a local or national scale elsewhere and, sometimes, everywhere.”

According to Richard Charnberlin, president of Harris Seeds, the bigger issue is the grower marketplace itself. “There is an infusion of smaller, fresh market growers across the country, the middle size grower is facing more production cost pressures each year, and big production farms will continue to consolidate,” he says. “U.S. companies are expanding into Canada, and eventually, there will be more international sales by the bigger players as the world grows smaller.”

Rick Mitchell, director of fresh market sales, Syngenta Seeds, Inc. Vegetables NAFTA Rogers Brand Vegetable Seeds, concludes that the marketplace and customer needs will determine the issue of geographic significance.

“Clearly, recent developments in the vegetable sector demonstrate that regional markets are no longer insulated from national and international issues and their implications,” says Mitchell. “For Syngenta, we will be utilizing our substantial global resources whenever possible, applying them locally in a strategic manner, and being actively involved in providing the best solutions which result in the greatest value to our customers.”

By Rosemary O. Gordon

Managing Editor

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