Not too long ago, when Sakata Seed America was looking to relocate some of its operations from Morgan Hill, there was an easy choice near Woodland.
Land values in Morgan Hill, a pricey suburb roughly 15 minutes south of San Jose, were two to three times what they were in Yolo County, where Sakata ultimately decided to build its $18.5 million, 215-acre Woodland Innovation Center. Sakata, which had run smaller research operations in Woodland in the past, would have a larger center to recruit students from UC Davis — one of the world’s best agricultural schools. And Sakata could take greater advantage of one of the Capital Region’s secrets: It has some of the best land in the world to grow seed.
It was certainly no secret to Tim Do-Cambridge, project manager for Sakata’s Woodland Innovation Center (not to be confused with the Woodland Research & Technology Park, also in the works), which opened in September. Asked if the area’s fertile land encouraged Sakata to build its center there — where the company will research, produce and package seeds — Do-Cambridge replied, “Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Our land, the land that we purchased… really helps to support our research and production.”
While Sakata might not have the name recognition of a Monsanto, the company has made its own mark. Do-Cambridge says 70 percent of broccoli on the West Coast comes from Sakata seeds. The company’s roots in Japan, where it is currently headquartered in Yokohama, go back more than a century. In Woodland, Do-Cambridge says, the company will have peppers and melons as its two main seed crops to take advantage of the area’s climate.
A number of major agricultural companies already operate in the Sacramento region, which include Monsanto in Roseville, Bayer in West Sacramento and Syngenta in Woodland. The region produces seeds at a prodigious rate, with Kent Bradford, director of UC Davis’s Seed Biotechnology Center, noting for example that the Sacramento Valley produces a quarter of all the sunflower seeds for the world. “It’s one of the best places to grow seed in the world,” Bradford says.
‘Beneficial Uses’ for Yolo County
Stephanie Cormier, Yolo County’s assigned planner on the project, says the new center met with little resistance. “When a project like this comes, even though it’s a discretionary project and requires an entitlement process that can be very lengthy and cumbersome and costly, we typically don’t get a lot of opponents or opposition,” Cormier says. “These are seen as very beneficial uses to the county.”
Still, there were a few speed bumps. Initially, Sakata Seed wanted to use all of the 215 acres it purchased for agriculture and locate a hub of six buildings amid a grove of oak trees that the county considers a special resource.
Though the applicants worked out a plan that would have preserved all the living trees, the county called for a full environmental impact report in exchange for locating there. Cormier says Sakata decided it wasn’t worth going through an EIR — the most time-consuming type of environmental review in California — and opted to place the buildings elsewhere on approximately 15 acres of its land.
Stantec designed the center. DesCor Builders was the general contractor for the project, which was completed in about two years. “They felt like they needed to reach out and go somewhere where the land value was more in line with the type of work they did,” says Matt Shigihara, a project principal for Stantec, of Sakata’s decision to relocate to Yolo County. There were also some issues, Shigihara says, associated with building in a remote, unincorporated part of the county, roughly five miles from Woodland city limits.
“When you’re building that many buildings out in the middle of land that’s not developed, it’s like building a mini-city,” Shigihara says. “You’re providing power out there. You’re providing basically a septic system to accept the sewer. You’re drilling a well. You’re providing fire protection, all of these things that (are) required by code these days. But you’re doing it all from scratch, so planning for that was really an interesting part of the process.”
Strengthening Ties with UC Davis
With the Woodland Innovation Center, Sakata Seed will have the opportunity to strengthen its existing ties to UC Davis, which is a common attraction for agricultural companies locating in Yolo County, says Cormier.
It’s simple to see why this occurs. Bradford — who is also a UC Davis professor of plant science and interim director of the school’s World Food Center — says UC Davis is ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the world, along with Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Cornell University, for agriculture and natural resources. UC Davis is also arguably top three specifically for seeds, Bradford adds, along with Wageningen — the Netherlands has the biggest seed trade in the world aside from the US — and Iowa State, which focuses on corn and soy.
Industry executives like Gabe Patin, former head of Sakata Seed America, saw the value in UC Davis. After Bradford approached the Seed Advisory Board that Patin sat on to pitch creating the school’s Seed Biotechnology Center, Patin says he convinced the then-chairman of Sakata’s parent company to contribute $100,000 to the effort. He also raised an additional $175,000 among other board members. Patin was eager to gather research pushing back on popular public sentiment against GMOs, and he respected the research capabilities of the center.
“They do a lot of research from various points of view,” says Patin, now 89. “They’re scientific people. These guys are all Ph.D.s — I’m not.”
The center will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. A university spokesperson noted after Patin won an Award of Distinction from the school in 2017 that he considers his role in helping to create the center “one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.”
The school hosts networking sessions for students and ag companies the second Thursday of every month during the school year. In time, perhaps a robust stream of UC Davis students and graduates could be heading to intern and work at the Woodland Innovation Center.
Bradford, who attended the center’s grand opening in September, anticipates expansion, based on the set-up of buildings. “They’ve got their processing facility, they’ve got their breeding facility, the place for their tractors and all that and there’s gaps in between it,” he says. “You can see that they’re planning to expand and be there for the long term, so that’s going to be a really nice facility.”