New varieties of vegetables are being cultivated in SLO County

Mark Overduin, president of Bejo Seeds Inc. in Oceano, holds a pointed cabbage grown in the company's test field.
Mark Overduin, president of Bejo Seeds Inc. in Oceano, holds a pointed cabbage grown in the company's test field.

Editor’s note: The Tribune asked top administrators at Bejo Seeds Inc. in Oceano and at a Monsanto research station in Arroyo Grande to discuss their operations in San Luis Obispo County. US Agriseeds, based in San Luis Obispo, declined to be interviewed. In 2012, US Agriseeds, with operations worldwide, joined with VoloAgri Group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, in a move to strengthen its resources and develop new products.

When Mark Overduin joined Bejo Seeds Inc. 23 years ago, there were three employees working out of a rented office above Klondike Pizza in Arroyo Grande.

“It always got kind of hard to concentrate on work when they started up the ovens,” Overduin joked.

The company has grown a lot since those early days and has experienced organic steady growth, he said. Although Overduin never envisioned the company would be where it is today, after about 10 years into the business, he knew it was on the way up.

“It really clicked that we could answer a lot of both agricultural concerns, such as yield and disease resistance, and consumer concerns, such as nutrition and flavor, through targeted breeding for traits that bring true value to both the growers and the end consumers,” he said. “And now as I look forward, I see that the growth potential for what we do is wide open.”

Bejo Seeds Inc. has been based in Oceano since 1992, when it moved to its property overlooking picturesque vegetable fields. It built and moved into a new facility at Silver Spur Place in the summer of 2002.

Overduin anticipates continued annual revenue growth of 10 percent to 15 percent “not only as our market positions improve, but also as the American people make healthier choices with food, which will include more vegetables,” he said.

Although parent company Bejo Zaden is based in Europe, the company recognized the potential for growing varieties in the United States and settled in San Luis Obispo County because of its proximity to markets in the southwestern U.S. and the ability to do trials and plant test plots year-round, said Overduin.

The company often has the opportunity to work with and learn from local growers such as the Taylors, Talleys, Hayashis and Ikedas, and “many others to plant test plots of new varieties for our product development,” he said.

Bejo global breeds 40 different crops, with the core groups in the cabbage family, carrots and onion.

Seed is produced in many countries, including the U.S., Holland, England, France, Italy, South Africa, China, Australia, Vietnam and New Zealand. In the United States, the company oversees nearly 2,000 acres of seed production — including 300 acres on the Central Coast, with acreage also in the Bakersfield area, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Five breeders in the U.S. work solely on tomatoes, onions and carrots, and are part of a global network that develops seeds with traits that offer disease resistance, improved yields, better flavors and nutrients. Bejo is known for its Tasti-Lee tomato, which has more lycopene than standard tomatoes, Overduin said. Lycopene is an antioxidant compound that gives tomatoes their color.

Seed breeding and production can be a painstakingly long process. It can take eight to 15 years or more to go from breeding to a commercial product.

The company does not breed genetically modified seeds, having made the decision about 20 years ago not to follow the larger companies into GMOs. Rather, it focused on organic seed production, Overduin said. Most of its seed production uses conventional agricultural processes, but it also has produced certified organic seed in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties for the past decade.

“We see a big potential for increased opportunities in that segment and we are ready to service it,” he said.

Consumer tastes and focus on health have given the company a huge boost as well.

Some school lunch programs want to offer options such as kohlrabi, a cabbage-family vegetable high in vitamin C. Chefs want vegetables with traits that make them easier to use in the kitchen, such as Bejo’s Sweetheart Lettage. It’s the name of a pointy-headed cabbage bred to be sweeter than a typical cabbage and to have a more tender leaf texture, similar to lettuce, Overduin said. It’s scheduled to be in produce aisles in the next12 months, he said.

Moreover, Bejo has captured about 90 percent of the kale seed market since that trend took hold. Its kale seed sales have quadrupled in the past three years after remaining flat for the past two decades, he said.

To Overduin, Bejo Seeds’ continued success lies in its ability to foster creativity among its employees and in giving them access to each other on a local and global level. Employees are encouraged to experiment, learn from successes and failures, and then add to the company’s knowledge base.

“I love the seed business, even after nearly 25 years, it still fascinates me,” he said. “And we look for people who are passionate about the seed business with a strong sense of curiosity, which naturally leads to innovation and creativity in all facets and processes of the business.”

Breeding better broccoli

In the fields of Arroyo Grande, Gene Mero is working to produce better broccoli.

As the station manager for Monsanto’s Arroyo Grande Research Station, he is responsible for trying out several varieties of the vegetable, including raised head broccoli and Beneforte broccoli. In raised head broccoli, the crown is visible in the leaf canopy, making it easier to harvest. Beneforte broccoli contains greater nutritional benefits than ordinary broccoli, said Mero, noting that other crops have been grown at the station, but broccoli is the sole focus now.

The seeds used to grow the broccoli at the station are conventional seeds, not genetically modified, he said.

Mero, a breeder for more than 30 years, started his work at the station, one of 55 such Monsanto research stations worldwide, in 1986. The research station had been operated by Seminis, another major player in the vegetable and fruit seed company business.

Monsanto, a global leader in vegetable production, acquired Seminis in 2005. Monsanto’s vegetable seeds division is represented through its De Ruiter and Seminis seed brands, according to the company.

All the new broccoli products are tested with local producers in their fields or at their trial site, said Mero. The moderate climate here is ideal for “breeding activities and seed production year round.”

“Operating a breeding station in close proximity to one of the largest and best broccoli producing regions has been instrumental in our ability to deliver competitive hybrids to coastal California broccoli growers,” Mero said.