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The Chase

The Chase

Though it’s been said that those who run after two hares will catch neither, Sakata Seed America isn’t in the business of hare catching, so to speak.

For Sakata Seed America, it’s about the chase. It’s about the pursuit and the feeling of stretching the team’s legs, seeing how far they can run, and pushing the boundaries of the company’s capabilities. The end goal isn’t necessarily the hares, but if one is caught, all the better.

“We are laser-focused on a team approach to innovation and enlist each segment of our business—breeding, production, sales and marketing, and logistics—to produce and develop products aimed at keeping Sakata Seed America on the forefront of variety and technological developments,” Alicia Suits, Senior Marketing Manager, shares with me.

Perhaps it is this team approach that makes Sakata Seed America—whose mission it is to contribute sustainably to the betterment of life and culture around the world through innovative vegetable varieties—akin to an endurance runner. A chain may only be as strong as its weakest link, but there are no weak links at Sakata Seed America. In fact, being only as good as the sum of its parts is why the team approach has worked so well for Sakata since the inception of its American division in 1977.

Sakata Seed Corporation was first founded in 1913 on the shores of Yokohama, Japan, a port city just south of Tokyo. This birthplace, like any port city, was a melting pot of cultures and ideas and could be one of the reasons why Sakata Seed Corporation set out to enrich its team with a diverse group of innovators from around the world. Today, this group boasts strongholds in Japan, Europe, and North and South America.

“As a global company, our ability to tap resources in various markets around the world keeps us connected with many growing regions. This allows Sakata to rapidly respond to new plant disease threats and adopt new innovations to enable the maintenance of a rich, appealing, and competitive portfolio of vegetable products that will continue to fulfill the needs of consumers, retailers, and growers,” Robb Bertels, Retail Category Manager, tells me. “For this reason, Sakata is well established in the seed breeding industry as a leader in quality, reliability, and service.”

Like any entity consisting of various parts, each part serves a function and is essential to the success of the whole. Within the entity that is Sakata, the research and development (R&D) and breeding and product management teams are the company’s front-of-the-pack runners, who follow the shifts in the industry and chase global trends.

“As the industry continues to develop, we pride ourselves on bringing superior genetics to the market. We have an extremely strong research and development team, including some of the best breeders and pathologists in the business. Our research team works tirelessly to bring genetics to market that benefit all levels of the supply chain, from growers to the end consumer,” Robb notes. “It really comes back to a team effort to monitor trends in the market.”

In recent years, these trends have taken the shape of heat-tolerant and disease-resistant varieties with improved shelf-life.

“In addition, there is increasing demand for products that lend themselves to mechanical harvesting, and we are continuously seeking varieties with the right plant frame, head structure, color, growth cycle, and disease tolerances,” Robb continues. “We build our genetics around these key areas to ensure we’re providing the best experience for every grower, packer, retailer, foodservice operator, and consumer.”

"We are laser-focused on a team approach to innovation and enlist each segment of our business [...] to produce and develop products aimed at keeping Sakata Seed America on the forefront of variety and technological development."

Alicia Suits, Senior Marketing Manager, SAKATA SEED AMERICA

At this point, it’s cliché to say it starts with a seed—but this global company isn’t called Sakata Seed America for nothing. In 1969, Sakata put its name on the map as a leader in both the seed breeding industry and the broccoli category after developing the Green Duke, one of the world’s first commercially viable hybrid broccoli varieties, which offered more than twice the yields of non-hybrid varieties of the day.

Today, Alicia reveals to me, approximately 70 percent of all broccoli consumed in the U.S. starts with a Sakata seed—a number that the company is hoping to increase as it continues to introduce new and better hybrid broccoli varieties. This is where its breeder network comes into play.

“Our breeder network works closely with our sales and marketing team to analyze market data, retail trends, and consumer behavior patterns to focus on key attributes and desired traits tailored to each segment as trends develop,” Alicia explains. “This is difficult to achieve, as the industry is dynamic and it takes many years to bring a variety to market.”

But, Sakata is stronger when the entirety of its team works as one. Thus, this difficult task becomes less so when the team as a whole comes together to analyze market data to forecast shifts in customer needs and consumer preferences.

“Successful product development demands anticipating what the market will need combined with the assembly of genetic resources and testing with cooperating growers,” Alicia continues. “This is really where Sakata has become an expert.”

Beyond broccoli, Sakata also has made major strides in a variety of fresh produce categories. Recently, this included acquiring Vanguard Seed, a prominent lettuce seed breeding company in Salinas, California.

“This is a new segment for us, but one we think will create great synergy between the broccoli and lettuce markets, most notably in the Salinas Valley and Yuma, Arizona, regions,” Robb says.

In addition, Sakata has opened the door for its team to develop a new segment of the industry: Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), or indoor ag.

“We’re currently building a strong portfolio of existing and trusted Sakata varieties that are a perfect addition to the indoor category. These include many niche items distinguished by our Japanese heritage. We feel this is a great story for this market and can bring an array of exciting additions to the CEA space,” Robb adds. “In 2018, we also opened the Woodland Innovation Center in Woodland, California—a new site focused on research and production for Sakata Seed America’s rapidly expanding warm-season vegetable breeding programs, including melons, peppers, and tomatoes.”

Through all of this rapid development, Sakata Seed America has worked to grow alongside the communities in which it operates.

Remember those two hares? One could represent innovation and progress, while the other represents social responsibility. Rather than run after both, Sakata Seed America has built its business model around running alongside them. After all, the smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention—a mindset Sakata exemplifies to this day.

“At Sakata, social responsibility is woven into the fabric of our corporate culture. A few years ago, we launched our Sakata Gives program, which allows us to contribute a portion of pre-tax revenue to nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to our industry, community, and the lives and personal passions of our staff members and their families,” Alicia says. “We also contribute to local health and wellness organizations in California, Washington, Arizona, and Florida.”

"One of the things that really stands out within Sakata—apart from our focus on innovation and giving back to our communities—is our focus on people."

Robb Bertels, Retail Category Manager, SAKATA SEED AMERICA

These efforts are part of Sakata’s corporate sustainable development goals, which focus on making a difference via affordable, clean water and energy, zero hunger, high-quality education, economic growth in the ag sector, adapting to climate change, and gender equality.

“One of the things that really stands out within Sakata—apart from our focus on innovation and giving back to our communities—is our focus on people,” Robb adds. “COVID-19 is top of mind for everyone in the world right now. It is a generational event that will have repercussions for years, if not decades, to come. From the beginning of this crisis, we have focused on maintaining business continuity while securing the welfare of our employees. As a result, Sakata Seed America shows real strength and commitment to its people, customers, and agriculture. The company and its people are a testament to remaining true to our core values—on good days and bad.”

A company is only as strong, fast, impactful, innovative, and resilient as the sum of its parts. For Sakata Seed America, this translates into a team that can’t be beaten.

Should those hares ever find themselves in the team’s sights, I think we’ll have a new rendition of The Tortoise and the Hare on our hands.