By Mindy Hermann RD
Responding to the double digit growth of organic fresh produce production, the organic seed industry is continually developing seeds to meet supply chain needs for yield, disease resistance, and resource management. Below is a look at how three of the industry’s most prominent organic seed companies are developing products for growers.
Bejo Seeds, of Oceano, CA, became interested in organic seeds in the mid-1990s, motivated by the movement of large seed companies into genetic modification, Bejo went in the opposite route, exploring organic seed production. The company believes in organic principles as a way to align with soil health and sync with natural cycles of pest management. The goal is to improve both organic and conventional seed development by breeding broad disease resistance into vegetable varieties.
“The most important aspects of the breeding process are getting plants in the ground around the world so that we can do selection work in different environments,” says Mark Overduin, managing director, Bejo Seeds. “Globally, we have thousands of trials with several hundred entries. A high percentage of organic acreage for produce uses untreated conventional seeds and we strive to change that by cultivating organic seeds with traits people are looking for.”
“Grower priorities differ from consumer priorities, so we work toward balance in our breeding programs,” explains Overduin. “For example, growers want yield and disease resistance while consumers want health, flavor, and freshness.”
The Vitalis Organic Seeds division of Enza Zaden was founded in the mid-1990s and entered the US and Canadian marketplace in 2007. The company currently offers close to 500 certified organic vegetable and culinary herb varieties distributed in more than 35 countries – approximately 150 are available in the US and Canada – for open field, high tunnel, and heated greenhouse cultivation.
With development of new varieties requiring an average of 10 years, Vitalis dedicates time and resources toward identifying future needs through market research and conversations with growers and retailers. The company also utilizes its global presence to track, predict, and communicate future trends. “We monitor disease and pest movement to see what’s traveling around the world and then share this information with our various markets,” said Erica Renaud, Vitalis business manager for North America. “What’s happening to arugula, tomatoes, and other popular cultivars in one location could affect or possibly work for a grower in another location.”
The Vitalis breeding program continues to grow in size and sophistication as organic agriculture becomes more professionalized. Features desired by growers can include nitrogen uptake, stronger and more resistance to disease, strength of the parent line, and ability to grow under particular conditions, including in greenhouses or hydroponically. Renaud notes that “our team of breeding and production experts works to bring quality genetics to the market so growers can be successful with products that are the best they can be.”
Los Angeles based, Germains was established nearly 150 years ago as a seed distributor for the agriculture industry. It evolved into plant breeding in the 1950s and was among the first to introduce seed treatments; specifically, pelleting, for mechanized planting of commercial crops such as sugar beets. Today, Germains offers organic seed treatments and processes for over 30 vegetable species, in addition to its conventional lines.
“We see a huge influx in demand for Agricultural Services Certified Organic (ASCO) treatments such as priming, pelleting, and the newest area, biologicals for crop protection,” says Stacy Hasegawa, sales and marketing coordinator. Germains offers a layered seed treatment approach that can combine two or more products for desired protections. Growers of organic carrots, for example, can choose from an organic primer that improves germination, a pelleting product, and two different biologics in the company’s health portfolio that protect against root pathogens. A new spinach treatment provides pre-emergence protection against soil-borne fungi such as Pythium. Germains recently introduced a focus area on seed health to address the many diseases that travel on seeds, particularly as they cross international borders.