WOODLAND, Calif. — With close proximity to the University of California-Davis, an ample work force and mild weather, Woodland is quickly become an international center for vegetable seed breeding.
Monsanto cut the ribbon on its $31-million, 90,000-square-foot addition Aug. 15, and Syngenta plants to complete an $11 million-$12 million expansion before the end of 2014.
Monsanto’s site dedication came during its annual week of field tours, where seed dealers, shippers, retailers and others were invited to look at recent variety releases as well as those in the pipeline.
Vicky BoydMonsanto watermelon breeder Jerome Bernier (right) discusses watermelon quality with Leah McGrath (far left) with Ingles Markets Inc. as Amy Myrdal Miller, director of culinary programs and nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America, takes a photo. This year, the St. Louis-based company also invited about 20 dietitians and nutritionists to learn about new varieties and how they relate to healthful diets.
Monsanto has designated the Woodland facility its global headquarters for vegetable seed research.
The region was chosen because of its mild climate, its location in the heart of California vegetable production and proximity to the University of California-Davis, said Marlin Edwards, global vegetable technology lead.
“It’s just a great place to operate,” he said.
The expansion, which began about 17 months ago, increases the space for plant breeding support as well as plant seed health, which includes plant pathology, Edwards said.
Seeds and plant material can be sent in from around the world and tested for different diseases or physiological problems that may affect them.
The new facility has laboratories with tables, benches and other components that can be easily reconfigured.
The favorable climate and UC-Davis factored into Syngenta’s decision to expand, said Scott Tefteller, coastal commercial unit head based in Boise.
“You’re in good geography in terms of the vegetable arena, the access to UC-Davis and the partnerships you can create and also the acquisition of talent here,” he said.
The facility in 2012 was named a Syngenta research and development center of excellence and a global center for cucurbit breeding.
In addition to vegetables and a few field crops, Syngenta also has planted almonds and grapes as part of the expansion.
Those were crops to which the company lost experimental access when it sold its research and development facility in Visalia, Calif., several years ago, Tefteller said.
Seed breeding gets social
As the nutritionists toured Monsanto’s facility, they were able to talk to breeders and see and taste many of the new varieties. At each stop, many whipped out smart phones or tablets, snapped pictures and tweeted or posted on Facebook pictures of what they saw and tasted.
Leah McGrath, a corporate dietitian for Asheville, N.C.-based Ingles Markets Inc., said she uses social media, including Facebook and Twitter, extensively to interact with consumers about produce and nutrition. She also does a weekly radio program, appears regularly on local TV. and works with local growers on in-store promotions.
McGrath said she didn’t realize all of the behind-the-scenes work that went into producing high-quality fresh vegetables and vegetable seeds, and that was something she wanted to convey to her followers.
“I really think all of the different varieties are fascinating,” she said. “We talk about tomatoes, but there are all of these functional components of tomatoes. This is a very different growing climate than what we have in North Carolina. This is a dry climate, and it’s really interesting to see what the crop looks like compared to what we see when I visit farmers in North Carolina.”
Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, owner of hispanic food communications inc., Chicago, tweeted a picture of a hybrid tomato based on an heirloom variety, saying, “Tie dye tomatoes — yummy!!”
Melendez-Klinger said many consumers are far removed from cooking at home and don’t know the nutritional components of what they consume.
“The more food groups you have on the plate, the better,” she said. “The more colors is even easier. That’s what I tell children. And then you don’t have worry about vitamins C, A, D or whatever, either.”
Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center Center for Sports Medicine and Nutrition, works frequently with student athletes. She said she believed the current recommendations of consuming five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily may be too daunting for most consumers.
“The food phobia people have about produce isn’t getting people healthy,” she said. “It’s driving people toward more processed food.”
As dietitians, they advocate variety in a diet. Having more varieties of fruits and vegetables available to consumers that actually taste good could help reverse the trend of less per-capita produce consumption, Bonci said.