The company is a subsidiary of Sakata Seed Corporation, headquartered in Yokohama, Japan, which became the first Japanese company to export seed and has since been actively involved in the development of new and improved vegetable and flower varieties around the world.
Sakata Seed America came to life in 1977 as a research, production and sales division of Sakata Seed Corporation. Its U.S. headquarters is in Morgan Hill, Calif. Randy Johnson serves as branch manager and as a plant pathologist at the company’s Florida facility near Fort Myers. “A big reason why we started the Florida location was so we could branch out into warm season vegetable crops. That was in the early 1990s.” Johnson has been with Sakata since 1994.
Additional U.S. research facilities are in Salinas, Calif., and Mt. Vernon, Wash. All three facilities focus on vegetable breeding and trialing. Other worldwide Sakata Seed subsidiaries are Sakata Europe, Sakata Centroamerica, Sakata Guatemala, Sakata de Mexico, Sakata Chile, and Sakata Sudamerica in Brazil.
“As far as vegetables, Sakata Seed is historically known for broccoli,” said Johnson. “A significant part of the broccoli genetics in the world is from Sakata Seed. That also includes other vegetables within the brassica family, such as cabbage and cauliflower. In Florida, our presence is strong and increasing significantly in tomatoes, peppers and watermelons in particular,” he said. The company employs three doctorate-level breeders for those three crops at the Florida facility.
The company is known for innovation, Johnson said. “There are situations when a niche market is found and this is what we have done with Aspabroc (branded as Broccolini® in the produce section of the grocery store and on restaurant menus), a uniquely long stemmed/small floret broccoli that is very popular,” he said.
“Whenever you’re producing a tomato or a watermelon product, you want to help the growers to be profitable. And of course, the consumer cares about the way it looks and tastes. So when we breed, we breed for all different attributes. Breeding for disease resistance and yield helps the grower’s profitability, and for the consumer, sugar content, color, shape, firmness, etc., are all important things that go into breeding for quality food products,” Johnson said.
The Fort Myers location is mainly a research facility, with some product development and some sales activity in affiliation. “We challenge the different hybrids for different diseases here. We have growth chambers and greenhouses set up to challenge under worst-case-scenario disease conditions,” Johnson said. “Resistance bred into these varieties would negate the need for pesticides, which saves money and cuts pesticide use. Once we get a variety that fits the need of a target market, say Florida, California or Mexico, it goes on to the production department where we take the inbreds from the breeding programs and mass produce the hybrids. Once produced, our hybrid seed products go through the quality assurance program to ensure healthy and vigorous seed. Finally, it’s packaged and sold through commercial vegetable distributors located throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and potentially other areas abroad.”
Not only does Johnson have the future of seeds on his mind, he’s passionate about the future in another way — educating children about agriculture.
“We often work with middle and high schools that have their own gardens,” Johnson said. “Some of the teachers are great at showing their students what it takes to bring food to their tables while getting their hands in the soil. Sakata supports various schools to help them with those projects by donating funds, time and expertise. We gave one school a donation to attend the Florida State Science Olympiad, which is like a track meet for scientists. I was even recruited to set up a microbiology lab with microscopes and various scientific problems that they had to solve. It was a very rewarding experience to work with so many bright kids as they competed for medals.”
Johnson also visits teachers and tries to help where he can. “It gets the kids involved and they start understanding the science behind vegetables,” he said. “I went to one school and the teacher had a large garden, but he was irrigating overhead and causing some foliar diseases. I offered to teach them fertigation through drip. Since it’s not that expensive, they are very interested in implementing this technology because it also teaches the students about water and nutrient conservation.”
Broccolini® is a registered trademark of Mann Packing Company, Inc.