No company survives for 100 years without being tenacious, smart and innovative. Sakata Seed has made it to the century mark by being all of those things — surviving two World Wars, natural disasters and economic ups and downs — and at the same time breeding groundbreaking new plants that set new standards in number of plant categories.
The 2013 winner of Greenhouse Grower’s Medal of Excellence for Industry Achievement has a large global presence, with four divisions operating in Asia, South America, Europe and North and Central America, and a presence in 32 other countries. It is known for the quality of its breeding of both vegetables and ornamental plants, which are grown all over the world.
“A century in business matters,” says Dave Armstrong, Sakata Seed America president and CEO. “In a marketplace characterized by intensive consolidation, Sakata stands as a symbol of independence, innovation and reliability.”
Longevity is not possible without excellent products and service.
“I have been involved in this great industry for many years, and have seen all sorts of changes,” says Allan Armitage, professor emeritus at The University of Georgia. “I have seen companies come and go, mergers coalesce and fall apart, and of course, changes in the palettes of plants we grow. However, some aspects of this industry hold steady and one of them is the excellence year after year that certain companies bring to all of us, one of them being Sakata. I have been visiting flower breeders for more than 25 years and every year Sakata is a highlight.”
Sakata was founded in 1913 by Takeo Sakata, who opened a seedling and bulb export business called Sakata Noen in Yokohama, Japan. Within just a few years, the company had begun selling seed, and in 1920 it produced its first catalog for the export market. Despite the destruction of the offices in 1923 by an earthquake and the loss of the warehouse to a fire four years later, Sakata persevered, continuing to grow and expand.
“The company has never lost its determination as expressed in the corporate motto, ‘Quality, Reliability and Service,’ and we continually strive to produce and supply innovative products,” says Hiroshi Sakata, president of Sakata Seeds.
In 1930, breeding efforts commenced in earnest with the establishment of the Chigasaki Breeding Station, which allowed a much greater expansion of research and development in a wide-ranging variety of plants.
These efforts began to pay off just a few years later in 1934, when Sakata introduced the world’s first completely double F1 petunia, ‘Victorious Mixed,’ which netted the company its first All-America Seed Selection Awards (a Silver). At one point, the seed for this variety sold for more than $10,000 per pound.
Many more breeding achievements followed, especially in flowering plants, but Sakata was working on vegetables, too, bringing the first F1 cabbage hybrid, ‘Suteki Kanran,’ to the market in 1940.
Upheaval Of War Builds A Lasting Partnership
In 1943, the company had to weather another upheaval, this one man-made. Because of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Japan, Sakata took steps to safeguard its seed stock by moving it to Canadian partners, including Stokes Seeds.
“Just prior to World War II, a large shipment of seed was sent to Stokes Seeds to be held for sale and safekeeping in case trade with Japan was cut off,” Armstrong says. “At the war’s end, some seed was returned to Japan for sale and propagation. Today, Sakata Seed America is a key supplier to Stokes Seeds. Selling flower and vegetable seeds, the two companies work closely developing markets in Canada and the northeastern U.S. This partnership was and is very important to the success of Sakata.”
Breeding Breakthroughs Continue
In 1965, Takeo Sakata was awarded the AAS Medallion of Honor for exemplary work in the ornamentals industry. The following year, the company introduced the world’s first F1 hybrid pansies, ‘Majestic Giant Mixed’ and ‘Majestic Giant with Blotch.’
Sakata continued to expand in the next several decades. More research stations and offices were added in Japan, Europe, South America and Asia. In 1977, the company took an important stride into North America by establishing Sakata Seed America’s headquarters in San Francisco, followed eight years later by a new research station in Salinas, Calif. The focus remained on bringing groundbreaking new varieties to market, always with an eye on the industry’s needs.
“A close partnership with growers is a hallmark of Sakata Seed America,” Armstrong says. “In both the ornamentals and vegetables markets, Sakata professionals work with the men and women who grow our varieties in greenhouses and fields to test them and develop production practices that improve yields and lower input costs.”
A Florida breeding station, opened in 1994, allowed Sakata Seed America to expand into warm-season crops such as tomatoes, peppers and watermelon. And like many modern breeding companies, Sakata is taking on a relatively new role in developing effective branding and merchandising programs, such as its SunPatiens impatiens program.
“It would be impossible to go through all the crop innovations that Sakata has brought to the market, but who has not built on the successes of Profusion zinnias, Bloomingdale ranunculus, and newcomers like SuperCal petunias, Candy Showers trailing snapdragons and Calipetite calibrachoa?” Armitage says. “My best memories, however, have to do with the breeding and development of the SunPatiens at UGA with the Sakata team. Plants were not only kept away from prying eyes but were surrounded by 10 rows of 8-foot tall corn, a veritable Field of Dreams. Sakata breeders did all the work, and we were lucky to be part of such a tremendous program.
“We are all so fortunate to have this marvelous company in our midst. We have all benefitted from their pursuit of excellence, their creativity and their integrity.”
Flexibility, and a broad-picture view have allowed Sakata to not only survive, but thrive and grow for a century. And there are no plans to slow down.
“The coming century will not be an easy one,” Hiroshi Sakata says. “It is impossible to know the full extent of the problems we will face in terms of responding to environmental changes and increases in population, and ensuring biodiversity and safety. Nonetheless, vegetables nourish the body and flowers nourish the soul. Meeting the challenges facing humanity and contributing to global society through the supply of seeds will always be the primary mission of Sakata.”