Forty acts for 40 years

Locally-operated seed company celebrates four decades in America

SAKATA SUPPLY One of the company’s most popular products, it takes 10 years to bring a new variety of broccoli to market. Resident broccoli expert Matt Linder. Photo: Robert Eliason

California has long been an agricultural haven for ranchers, growers and producers. With a moderate year-round climate and an output of more than 400 agricultural commodities, California provides more than one-third of the country’s vegetables and more than two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

So it’s no surprise that in 1977, Sakata Seed Corporation, based in Yokohama, Japan, decided to set up shop in one of the most fertile regions in the world. Eleven years after launching in San Francisco, Sakata Seed America moved its operations to Morgan Hill, where it would finally lay its groundwork in the heart of America’s major horticultural and agricultural centers.

Making a business of selling seeds to greenhouse growers and farmers, Sakata develops a wide variety of vegetable and flower seeds. According to senior marketing manager Alecia Troy, about 20 percent of the seeds sold by Sakata are untreated or sold as organic, while none of the company’s seeds are ever genetically altered.

“Our seed production has been carried out under the greatest possible care based on the legal rules, including stipulated isolation distances, to achieve high purity standards and to avoid the presence of off-types, including GMOs,” says Troy.

This location was chosen because of its proximity to services, available labor, airports and other important institutions servicing the seed industry, including the University of California, Davis—a top agricultural research center, she says.

“The facilities in Morgan Hill and Salinas give Sakata full-scale opportunities to develop, produce, process, package and ship flower and vegetable seed throughout North America,” says Troy.

With fewer than 400 employees in the Americas and more than one-fourth of them employed right here in Morgan Hill, this international business has secured its mark in the region.

Sakata Seed America employs 120 people from Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties—working in such fields as research and development, seed supply, marketing, finance, administration, human resources and IT.

Sakata Employees

Ask most any company and they’ll say its employees are important, and Sakata says it takes employee satisfaction seriously. Being a smaller company has its advantages, and Sakata prides itself on longevity of staff.

“In the last few years we have had a huge surge of new hires,” says Troy. But many of the employees have been with Sakata for nearly 10, 20 or 30 years.

The Sakata motto: “Quality, Reliability and Service” translates into every area of its business model. And the Sakata philosophy is exemplified in the company’s programs, both internal and external, with regard to professional development and personal wellness, as well as Sakata’s role in the community. Sakata provides avenues for its employees to gain the knowledge and training they need to advance in the company and encourages its employees to get involved in projects that benefit the community. Such projects have included financing the expansion and art installation at the Morgan Hill Community Garden, bringing gardens to schools, and raising funds for special beautification programs, including working with the city to plant nearly 200 plants for the Morgan Hill Community Library.

Sustainability Efforts

In addition to serving its employees’ personal and professional development, Sakata has introduced green initiatives in which it encourages its employees to take part. Troy says Sakata strives to have a positive, healthy and sustainable impact on the people, the communities and the food it touches.

“Sakata seeks to assist in building sustainable communities by focusing our human and financial resources in the areas of nutrition, health and the environment,” she says.

Rhonda Jones, Sakata’s logistics and operations manager, says its efforts to maintain environmentally-friendly policies further the sustainability of its business.

“Through education and encouragement, it is our goal to inspire employees to prioritize sustainability not only in their workplace, but also in their home life,” says Jones. “We are committed to meeting the needs of the present world without compromising those of future generations.”

In 2013 Sakata went solar and installed 2,000 solar panels at its Morgan Hill site.

“Prior to 2014 when we converted to solar our electric charges were approximately $10,000 per month, and now, on average, are less than $50,” Jones says.

But Sakata isn’t just thinking about its own financial health. The company also made efforts to reduce water consumption and eliminate turf on its premises. In 2014, Sakata made a commitment to cut back on water-wasting lawns around the Sakata grounds, replacing them with drought-resistant plants. Today, Sakata boasts “more than a 50 percent [reduction in turf] and is experiencing a water savings of 723,000 gallons annually,” says Jones.

At the same time, Sakata installed WeatherTrak irrigation controllers, which monitor weather conditions to help determine daily water needs and adjusts accordingly. As a result of Sakata’s turf and water usage reduction projects, Santa Clara Valley Water District presented Sakata with a Water Saving Hero award for its conservation efforts.

40 Acts of Kindness

Now in its 40th year in the Americas and seeking a way to show its commitment to the local community, Sakata developed 40 Acts of Kindness—an idea that grew out of its corporate giving program. “Throughout the year, we will be celebrating [Sakata’s]  anniversary by giving back to the employees, customers, industry and community that got us to this point,” says Troy.

To do this, they are giving back to more than 40 organizations in the sectors that reflect its corporate giving mission of focusing on areas of nutrition, health and the environment.

Sakata ramped up its 40 Acts of Kindness this summer with a handful of projects including a 40 Days of Summer Giving Campaign, which worked with the American Floral Endowment (AFE) in which Sakata matched donations that would support educational programs, grants and research to advance the floral industry.

The company set out with a goal of raising $20,000 for AFE programs. By the end of the 40 days, they nearly doubled that goal—earning more than $38,000 for the cause.

Leadership Gilroy is one of the local programs Sakata is supporting and this year—in addition to sending Rhonda Jones as one of the students to Leadership Gilroy—Sakata also sponsored the Duckie Derby and supported Leadership Gilroy’s annual Spring Fling fundraiser held in April 2017.

This summer Sakata partnered with AmericanHort’s Pollinator Project in preparation for July’s “Cultivate ’17,” a production technology conference for conventional horticultural professionals. Troy says Sakata’s support of this project helps encourage healthier pollinator communities. (For more information, visit americanhort.org/bees.)

In its 40th year, the company is continuing its support for California Rodeo Salinas, and participates in the rodeo’s “Produce Mascot Race,” which donates all proceeds from entry fees to Ag Against Hunger—a Salinas-based nonprofit that collects surplus produce from growers in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties and provides it to families in need. This year Sakata’s entry was “Green Magic,” which Troy says was a broccoli superfood/hero portrayed by Katie Reed, a lab coordinator out of Sakata’s Salinas location.

Also in July, Sakata had two Morgan Hill employees, Cristen Bonz and Morgan Howe-Cobb, participate in the Tour de Fresh Bike Ride—a benefit to raise funds for the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools initiative.

“Although we’ve participated for the past three years, this is the first year that we doubled our commitment and created a goal of $7,000—enough money to donate a salad bar to two different schools,” Troy says proudly. “Cristen and Morgan, along with the support of Sakata staff, friends, family and a fantastic bike raffle donated by Mara Trammell’s husband, Kenny, owner of Valley Bikes in Salinas, raised over $11,000,” Troy adds. “Well beyond their goal.”

Another part of Sakata’s 40 Acts of Kindness celebration is its ongoing support of Valley Verde with both seed and monetary donations. Valley Verde is a nonprofit organization that helps residents in Santa Clara County grow their own vegetables—providing low income families with the knowledge and tools needed to grow and maintain their own organic vegetable gardens at no cost.

Sewing Their Seeds

“If you’re eating broccoli anywhere in the world, there is a 65 percent chance you’re eating ours,” says Matt Linder senior broccoli product manager and Salinas Valley area sales manager.
With Sakata for nearly 30 years, Linder says bringing a new broccoli variety to market typically takes up to 10 years. This is because broccoli flowers can only bloom one time per year, he says. It’s not until after several years of successful self-crossing that plants are ready for test crossing (hybridization).
“After the [up to] 10-year period of creating parent lines of the hybrid,” he says, “another three to four years of internal and external trialing take place before the seeds are ready to go to market.”
So what do they look for? With broccoli as an example, they look at head quality, disease resistance and abnormal plant growth, either natural or environmentally influenced, to determine their best cultivars.
“The key vegetable seed crops we breed and produce are broccoli, carrot, beet, spinach, cabbage, tomato, pepper, cantaloupe and watermelon,” says Troy.
Sakata also produces ornamentals, including: begonia, calibrachoa, celosia, cyclamen, gerbera, impatiens, lisianthus, marigolds, pansy, petunia, sunflower, viola and zinnia.
Sakata’s best quality seeds are chosen based on plant performance. Performance, says Troy, is improved through making crosses and selections in breeding based on uniformity and consistency of product, disease resistance, ease of growing, aesthetics, yield and flavor.
In the near future, the company looks forward to completing the construction of its Woodland research facility, which will be the largest operated by Sakata Seed America.

Debra Eskinazi

Debra Eskinazi

Debra Eskinazi is the editor of South Valley magazine.
Debra Eskinazi

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About Debra Eskinazi
Debra Eskinazi is the editor of South Valley magazine.