It all starts with a seed. Agriculture practices have changed throughout history to meet increasing demands for stability, quantity, quality and variety in the food supply. Keeping up with these changes has required mastering plant breeding and seed development. A Colorado company, Hollar Seeds, has done just that.
“Man has been selecting and breeding ‘new’ and ‘improved’ cultivars since crops were first domesticated some 10,000 years ago,” says Bruce Carle, plant breeder for Hollar Seeds in Rocky Ford. “My main responsibility is to develop new hybrid cultivars to meet the needs of our customers.”
A History of Hollar Seeds
Hollar Seeds originated in Colorado and is a family-owned business that has specialized in breeding and developing cucurbits – or vine seed crops – since 1950. Founded by Victor E. Hollar, this local business began selling farm equipment, melon seed and alfalfa seed in the U.S. and expanded to include watermelon, cucumber, tomato, squash and pumpkin seeds, exporting all the way to Mexico, Canada, Europe, the Middle East and South Africa by the 1960s.
Vic Hollar’s three sons helped run the business, and Larry Hollar took over as president in 1978. In 2015, Larry passed the legacy to his son-in-law, Andy Medina.
Today, the company has distributors in about 75 countries including most of Europe, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, Iraq, China, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and Japan. It caters to a world market of local preferences for different sizes, shapes, colors and textures of horticulture crops.
“Our product line reflects that diversity and is, by choice, not reliant on one or two ‘top sellers,’ ” Carle says. “We sell quite a bit of seeded watermelon around the world, we are a major supplier of butternut squash seed and a major player in the Middle East summer squash market.”
Breeding for Change
Because new-and-improved competing varieties are constantly entering the market, the typical life of a good cultivar is about 10 to 15 years, Carle says.
He primarily works with watermelon and hard squash such as butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash. Plant breeders at Hollar Seeds work to develop improved inbred lines of crops through controlled cross breeding and self-pollination, as well as to construct new hybrid combinations by crossing various inbred lines. Carle and his colleagues also test hybrid seeds for marketability and work to increase parent lines and production of the hybrids.
“From the conception of an idea to the introduction of a new cultivar, it can take 12 to 14 generations,” he says. “Fortunately, utilizing greenhouses and some of our southern hemisphere growing locations, we can usually get three generations in a year.”
Adapting for a Global Climate
Growing in Colorado, which falls between U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone 4 and 7 depending on where you are, can offer a different climate than some of Hollar Seeds’ clients growing in South Africa. Fortunately, most of what the company sells is adapted to a variety of environments.
“A major focus of our breeding programs is to introduce new disease resistances into our material, which enhances adaptability,” Carle says. “We also do some early-generation selection in other locations, and we rely heavily on our testing phase of hybrids with cooperators around the world.”
Usually it isn’t a question of whether a variety will grow and produce a crop, it is whether the variety yields sufficiently and meets local market specifications. “We produce a quality seed, free of seed-borne pathogens with excellent germination and high-genetic purity,” Carle says. “We are proud of our precision milling, treating systems and our quality-control program.”
Planting for the Future
Hollar Seeds will continue its work to improve disease and pest resistance for higher yields and reduced input costs. The company also works to improve selection for cold and heat tolerance to expand production windows for growers around the world.
There is always new material in the pipeline. “We look at hundreds of new hybrids each year and may choose 5 to 10 percent to look at again,” Carle says. “Over the course of three to five years of worldwide testing, we may select anywhere from two to five varieties to advance to commercial status from each wave of development.”