Seed To Shelf

Originally printed in the February 2020 issue of Produce Business.

How companies collaborate with retailers to offer differentiated products.

From its early roots in pushcarts, the produce industry has relied on “push” marketing to sell its products. Seed companies may be reshaping the norm by reaching out directly to retailers rather than flowing products down the supply chain. By promoting new varieties, seed companies hope to create “pull-through” demand for their proprietary seeds all the way to the shelves of stores.

“Seed company business development leaders have started to focus directly on retailers, because retailers want new varieties that will help them stand out and attract consumers,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, founder and president, Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc., Carmichael, CA. “Retail commitments benefit seed companies, which can strengthen their relationship with growers by guaranteeing a market for a new crop.”

One Potato, Two Potato

Some seed companies introduce new varieties into the marketplace first through foodservice channels, knowing the influence that chefs and restaurants have on consumer awareness.

HZPC Americas Corp., Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, is a division of a global market leader in innovative breeding, seed potato trading and concept development. The company is trying to reshape the potato industry by appealing to chefs and other culinary professionals, drawing from its resources of 40 or 50 different varieties that are cultivatable in North America.

“For our company’s first 100 years, we focused on pushing products from our growers into the supply chain,” explains Jeff Scramlin, president. “We changed our approach three years ago into one that builds demand through foodservice channels, where a majority of food trends start.” Scramlin also notes the importance of directly educating retail buyers. “Many buy potatoes by color to fill a set shelf space. We want to open their eyes to differentiation for their customer base.”

HZPC is developing an app for chefs that will be a resource on various potato types, giving chefs and later consumers the ability to search potato varieties based on use and preferences. The company also is conducting consumer research in four large cities to discern regional potato preferences.

Catering To The Cook

Enza Zaden, a global leader in vegetable seed breeding with North America offices in Salinas, CA, develops crops with consumers in mind. “The demand for mini-conical peppers has been steadily increasing for many years now, because they’re so easy and satisfying as a colorful and healthy snack,” says Jean-Francois Thomin, marketing manager. “Our Tribelli peppers support this trend by offering such a superior flavor experience that they were awarded the Superior Taste Award from the International Taste Institute in Brussels.”

Building on a growing repertoire of sensory research, Enza Zaden bred its Tribelli peppers in close collaboration with selected growers. Thomin notes that Enza Zaden and its partners share a commitment to increase vegetable consumption worldwide by developing seed varieties that are flavor-forward and building a portfolio of cutting-edge innovations.

“We have an overall commitment to better understand flavor and to breed for it, alongside yield, ease of harvest and related agronomic factors,” explains Thomin. “Breeding for flavor sounds like a slam dunk, but it’s not really the case. We breed for agronomic factors because our traditional customers are farmers. Retailer customers, and consumers, however, are looking for different things. As you move toward the consumer, flavor becomes bigger and bigger, and trumps everything.”

Enza Zaden raises Tribelli brand awareness at retail and with consumers by engaging local chefs and consumer influencers to create recipes that can be shared with consumers at point-of-purchase and through the Enza Zaden and partner websites.

A Dedicated Retail Strategy

Robert Bertels, retail category manager for Sakata Seed America, Inc., Morgan Hill, CA, describes his role as understanding the produce supply chain from end to end while working with the retail segment to stay in tune with consumer tastes and trends, new technology and changes in the marketplace. “Bringing new products to market is a complex process, and we must rely on our internal and external stakeholders to develop the products, trial them, determine the market potential and introduce them into the marketplace. Since we aren’t the grower, our business model is to work both up and down the supply chain to make sure everything we do before the seed goes in the ground is aligned with the market’s needs.”

“As you move toward the consumer, flavor becomes bigger and bigger, and trumps everything.”

— Jean-Francois Thomin, Enza Zaden

By necessity, the seed breeding market is focused on developing products that benefit the grower with high volume and resilience to disease pressures,” adds Bertels. “Those benefits help deliver a consistent, high quality supply. We also are working diligently on bringing more flavor to the market, because that’s what the consumer wants. If a product looks good, has good shelf life, and tastes great, that’s the trifecta of success.”

Sakata is breeding for production in new markets, particularly the East Coast, to help mitigate shipping costs and food miles while lessening the overall carbon footprint in the food industry. Other new initiatives include indoor agriculture and vertical farming, specifically with leafy greens that adapt well to vertical farming operations.

Sakata educates retailers in several different ways, including field days where retailers, along with growers and seed distributors, can learn about new varieties being developed by the company.

Sakata periodically sends samples to retailers. “Before the 2019 PMA Fresh Summit, we sent samples of our Crimsonstar and Scarletstar grape tomato varieties to highlight our new product development in greenhouse grape tomatoes,” says Bertels. “In addition, we have a very robust website and product catalog that outlines all our varieties. We also create communications that focus on promoting specific product categories.

“The real key in our communication efforts is to continuously provide relevant, useful information to the entire supply chain, and to deliver content for retailers that demonstrates Sakata’s innovation and product development.”

As a global company, Sakata exhibits regionally, nationally and globally for the opportunity to interact with retailers and marketers. “We plan to attend as many shows as possible to interact with retailers and grower/shippers and to stay in tune with market changes and new opportunities,” says Bertels.

Investment In The Breeding Process

Rijk Zwaan USA, Salinas, CA, dedicates local teams plus a complete team of global chain specialists to its retailer relationships. “We offer produce retailers numerous opportunities to learn about products grown from our seeds,” says Rick Falconer, managing director USA. “We attend and exhibit at regional trade shows and large industry shows such as PMA and Fruit Logistica. Also, we invite all in the supply chain to regional field days to see what’s new in the pipeline.”

The company focuses on a broad range of product benefits, including sensory, agronomic and environmental features. “One of our new products is a crunchy lettuce called Chicarita that combines the best traits of iceberg and Romaine lettuce. It has good pest-resistance, is organic and sustainably grown, can be used as a scoop or bowl to eliminate the need for plastic utensils, is low in carbs, and is versatile in recipes,” says Falconer.

Rijk Zwaan also engages in direct conversations with retailers and consumers. Its team visits retailer offices to open dialogues about today’s varieties and what is needed from breeding in the future. The company conducts consumer taste panels and in-store product demonstrations to help generate data on preference trends.

Falconer notes field trials are the most important task in plant breeding and the seed industry. “Our main goal is to get a variety that the grower can grow, the retailer can market and the consumer will demand. Feedback from the retailer on product objectives is essential to a successful business to help us navigate the complicated breeding process and be more efficient in developing the right varieties. Breeding is a long-term investment, so being able to learn the specific ‘asks’ is crucial.”

Taking The Long View

Grape and cherry breeder IFG, Bakersfield, CA, reproduces the varieties it breeds exclusively through cuttings. “Our primary focus is on the consumer and working to create varieties that inspire the consumer with taste, texture and interest,” says Andy Higgins, chief executive. “Given the long lead times of up to five years for grapes and seven years for cherries, we do a lot of trials and work across sales channels to understand preferences as well as performance of a particular variety.”

IFG’s goal is to support supply chain members as they develop their programs and sales. “We invite retailers to field days, fruit sampling, and consumer panels, and visit their offices and retail markets to discuss general market trends and conditions,” says Higgins. “We also actively listen to their needs, and provide our own input on quality and performance of our varieties across the industry.”

Multiple Communication Strategies

Syngenta Seeds, Woodland, CA, reaches out to retailers through a variety of platforms, including tradeshows and industry meetings, email, media news releases and websites. Its field day trials allow produce retailers to see new products firsthand, as well as to discuss marketing opportunities, problems, and needs with Syngenta’s breeding and product development teams. Javier Martinez-Cabrera, Syngenta head of Americas’ vegetable seeds, notes that “we leverage all opportunities to present our products and provide product positioning and differentiating selling strategies to retailers and produce category managers.”

“The beauty of the fresh produce industry is the quality and importance of the human network, including produce retailers,” says Martinez-Cabrera. “Face-to-face interaction with our retail customers is necessary for our success. Understanding the needs and motivations of customers and stakeholders drives us to deliver unique products that ultimately boost consumption and overall demand. Our products offer multiple benefits to retailers and consumers, including taste, convenience, snackability, added value and differentiation, increased shelf-life and reduction of waste, visual appeal and a great eating experience.”

Growers Remain A Vital Link

De Ruiter and Seminis, the vegetable seed divisions of Bayer, often work directly with retailers to understand what consumers want in the produce department. “Retailers are interested in new produce varieties as a way to differentiate themselves and attract customers,” explains Candace Wilson, North America strategic accounts lead, Bayer, Woodland, CA. “As we breed future generations of vegetables, our breeders use insights from retailers and consumers to ensure the varieties coming to market are those that people are excited to eat.”

The retailer relationship team tends to focus on communications around nutrition, labeling and sustainability more than on seeds and new varieties. Retailers who are interested in particular varieties may ask questions regarding supply, product characteristics and where the crop has been trialed. Wilson notes that “requesting new items can be risky for retailers because if a variety is not properly trialed over numerous years, growers don’t know how to grow the crop, and retailers could face a stock-out situation. That is why we have conversations and showcase events across the entire supply chain, including retailers, growers and others.”

The growers are a key link in the chain. “Products we request at the seed level must be products that growers can successfully cultivate,” says Wilson. “Seeds have to offer layers of features, for example, natural disease-resistance or high yield desired by growers along attributes for retailers and consumers, like shelf-life, freshness, reduced food waste, and sensory traits around flavor, aroma and texture.

“Our priority and responsibility is to set up our growers for success,” adds Wilson. “We make sure they are equipped to best showcase the attributes of products they are growing to retailers and consumers. Then it’s up to retailers to maintain product quality through proper handling over the course of the product lifecycle. We all must work together rather than in silos to align toward a common goal — providing healthy, delicious products that consumers want to eat.”