With a 30-year tenure at Paul Ecke Ranch before directing Sakata’s marketing activities on the cuttings side, Ron Cramer offers a unique perspective in bringing innovative varieties to market globally. At Ecke Ranch, Cramer managed licensing activities in Europe and Asia, working directly with breeders like Sakata and Kientzler in vegetative annuals, while also managing poinsettia propagation licensing abroad. Sakata has a long history of introducing innovative genetics in both seed and cuttings. Noteworthy recent introductions include Profusion zinnias and Kong coleus from seed and SunPatiens and SuperCal petchoas from cuttings.
GG: What is the role of the independent breeder in today’s globally more consolidated and vertically integrated marketplace?
RC: While of course some independent breeders like Sakata have relatively broad assortments, they are able to devote more resources to creating totally new categories like xPetchoa (SuperCal and Calitunia) or SunPatiens since they do not have to use breeding resources to maintain an “A to Z” offering to support an integrated organization. Also, the commodity crops offered by independents give growers additional options to the proprietary offerings of the integrated programs, which do today carry competitive lines.
GG: Are there fundamental differences between North America and Europe or Asia in how breeders approach the market?
RC: There are, but I believe it often has more to do with the market structure in these areas than a completely independently developed strategy for that market. For example, Sakata is completely vertically integrated in Japan to the point of our own retail garden center, packet seed business, mail order, etc. So naturally, we approach that market much differently than Europe or North America. Likewise, in North America, there are large retailers covering the entire market. It’s different from Europe, where a Pan-European retailer really doesn’t exist in our industry. The integrated players also have different levels of strength when considering Asia, Europe and North America. This also has to be considered by independents when choosing how to approach the market and which alignments to consider.
GG: When does it make sense for an independent breeder to be more visible with a product or more behind the scenes as a distribution partner runs with the product?
RC: When the product is either a commodity crop or one well known to growers, then a new series or form can more easily be introduced and managed through a distribution partner with a lower profile for the breeder. However, when it is a new category or specialty crop where production protocols and consumer uses are not well known, it can make sense for the breeder to adopt a more “hands-on” approach to guide and shape the message at all levels.
GG: Would you say creating innovative products that perform is the most important role of an independent breeder?
RC: Yes. Of course it’s important for all breeders, but more so for the independents because it gives them an edge to get the attention of the market and the integrated systems. Performance has to be good at all levels, not just in the garden for the consumer. Of course in the end that is necessary, but if innovation doesn’t involve solving grower’s problems producing it and getting it through distribution in good shape, the consumer will never have a real chance to evaluate it. When breeders create this, the market is there, waiting.
GG: How are some of the newer crops changing the rules on what constitutes a spring crop versus a fall crop? Are we seeing a greater emphasis on plants that will make it through three seasons until hard frost?
RC: I personally don’t really believe the broader market wants pansies that will last from Valentine’s Day to Labor Day, as an example. However, with the rapid growth of commercial and municipal landscaping and increasing focus on green cities and buildings, there is a segment where plants that can be strikingly attractive and/or functional for three seasons make a lot of sense. I think this is a trend that will continue.
GG: What opportunities are there for independent breeders to engage and build relationships with growers, retailers and consumers?
RC: With all the modern communication tools available, there are many practical opportunities. It’s also absolutely necessary. If breeders don’t understand the needs, problems, wishes for growers, retailers and consumers, it will be difficult to design effective breeding programs and define the correct selection criteria that will result in products that meet these expectations. For example growers need “turn-key” products, even new products. With today’s pressure on margins at every level no one can afford to “learn as you go”. If a breeder doesn’t engage and build adequate relationships with growers this technical exchange won’t be possible or effective.
GG: How is new technology playing a role in customer relationships?
RC: I think this is pretty universal and Horticulture is no exception. The ability to use Webinars, interactive websites, social media, the basically “tuned-in, wireless” nature of most in our business these days makes it so much easier to communicate and share information in a cost effective yet relationship-building way. Most of us have not really been successful using technology to create more free time for ourselves, so when suppliers can provide product support in an efficient and effective way, customers recognize and appreciate that and it strengthens the relationship.