October 2, 2020

Checking in with spinach specialist Eric Christianson of Rijk Zwaan

Well-known for its nutritional qualities, growers cultivated 66,800 acres of spinach in 2019, according to the USDA.

Eric Christianson works as a spinach crop specialist for international seed company Rijk Zwaan in Salinas, California. He was recently named one of SeedWorld’s “Top 10 Next Gen Leaders” — leaders who are influencing the U.S. and global seed industry.

Produce Processing recently caught up to Christianson to get to know him and his work a bit better:

Produce Processing: Tell me a bit about your job.

Eric Christianson: As a crop specialist at Rijk Zwaan, my job centers in several aspects of the crop itself. This involves making decisions to bring varieties from the pre-commercial stage to the commercial stage in the U.S. portfolio, forecasting sales of said varieties, providing technical advice to growers and distributors and managing customers’ needs in regards to the crop. As a crop coordinator, my job is to work more strategically with several countries in my cluster to investigate needs in the markets, take those needs to R&D and plan variety launches with local crop specialists and customers. At times, we estimate variety crop, or product form potential to drive investment into certain segments/projects.

PP: What sorts of requests do you get?

EC: We work with our distributors when developing new varieties. As a small team in the U.S., we depend a lot on the product development teams of our dealers to provide the data needed to make best decisions on varieties in our market. Occasionally, we will have a product that is so different from existing products in the market that we will need one-on-one feedback from growers/shippers/retailers about potential.

The requests for new products range from mechanical harvest types to different color and leaf/bulb/head/fruit shape or texture. We also get a lot of requests for value-added traits like added nutrition and longer shelf life. In the end, the requests fall under a central theme: “Show us something different!” I like to think that we fulfill this request more often than not.

PP: Salinas growers have struck me as a tight-knit group.

EC: Yes, there is an “everybody-knows- everybody” feeling among Salinas growers. There is a good bit of collaboration and stewardship amongst Salinas growers when it comes to land swaps and crop cycle breaks (to help with phytopathology issues).

Additionally, there are both organic and conventional growers in the Salinas valley. Those on the outside see these two growing systems as being at odds with each other. From what I see in this valley, there is a mutual respect between the two systems with several growers having both an organic and conventional operation.

PP: What sort of seed varieties are in the Rijk Zwaan catalog?

EC: Rijk Zwaan works in the fruit and vegetable market. We do not breed or produce any agronomic crops like corn, soybean, wheat, etc. Historically, we have excelled in greenhouse crops like cucumber, pepper, eggplant and tomato. However, our open field crops like lettuce, spinach, melons, cauliflower and pickling cucumbers are also incredibly important crops for Rijk Zwaan right now with a couple making it in the top five of our most important crops at RZ. Our most popular crops in the U.S. are lettuce and spinach.

PP: Tell me about Rijk Zwaan’s presence in the U.S.

EC: In the U.S., Rijk Zwaan’s “home base” is in Salinas, where we have a warehouse and research farm for conducting seed trials and breeding selections. In addition to Salinas, we have a research farm in Florida where we conduct early material screening and seed production research farms in Oregon and Washington.

With our distributors and seed treatment partners, we try to fulfill all customers’ needs when it comes to anything related to seed. Whether it is new seed treatments/coatings or technical advice related to a variety or disease, we like to think we can help any grower out.

I worked on a few small projects with Rijk Zwaan while I was a graduate student at Washington State University working for (professor) Lindsey du Toit. After graduating with a master’s in plant pathology, the Rijk Zwaan representative I worked with in graduate school referred me to the technical sales position and I guess I fit the bill.

PP: The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) several months ago made a big splash about releasing what they said was the first true red spinach variety. As someone who works with new spinach varieties, do you think red spinach will become a new category for seed providers?

EC: The USDA ARS provides many crucial services to the industry and have done so for several decades. Concerning the red spinach, I have seen the press release but I have not seen the variety perform in the field so I cannot comment on any potential it may have. Rijk Zwaan has provided red-vein spinach varieties for over a decade now with our varieties Red Deer, Red Cardinal, Red Kitten and now, Red Tabby. The segment remains highly specialized. It is possible that another niche segment is possible with red leaf types but in the end, the market will need to decide if it is more special than red leaf Swiss chard or lettuce.

PP: You told Seed World about your love of the challenges of red radishes, including the interaction of the genetics with environments. Can you explain how this works?

EC: To clarify, I mentioned my love of both spinach and radish. I don’t want to make my spinach colleagues jealous! As a new crop to me, radish is very interesting since it has a quick turnaround and very specific genetic by environmental interactions. It is difficult to find a variety with an incredible amount of what we call “adaptability” where the variety performs at an elite level in several different locations, with different environmental conditions. From a breeding standpoint, it is possible to find a variety that performs at an elite level in one area. For profitability, seed production and portfolio management reasons, we must have a variety that performs well in many locations.

A variety that has perfect round shape, deep white internal color and appropriate tops in one location in the U.S. could have elongated, uneven, and red “bleeding” roots with a too-short top in another location. The list of challenges mixed with the fast pace makes the crop fun to work with.

— Stephen Kloosterman, contributing editor of Produce Processing and associate editor of Vegetable Growers News, a sister publication of Produce Processing.


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