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Bridging The Gap Between Genetics and Indoor Growing Needs: Sakata Seed Cultivates CEA Success

Q&A With Tracy Lee Zogby, Head of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Department, Sakata Seed America

Sakata Seed Indoor Ag-ConHarnessing the power of existing genetics and strategic collaborations, Sakata Seed is providing quality seeds, exceptional service, and robust support to meet the diverse needs and demands of the rapidly expanding controlled environment agriculture (CEA) market.  We had the chance to catch up with Tracy Lee Zogby, CEA Lead, Sakata Seed America, to learn more about the company’s goals and objectives for its CEA department. We talk about some of Sakata’s outstanding varieties, the challenges and opportunities that CEA presents, upcoming advancements and innovations in seed development for indoor growers and more.

Sakata SeedTell us about the main goals and objectives of Sakata Seed’s CEA division?  How does it support the needs and demands of greenhouse grower, vertical farm operators  and other indoor growers in the sector?

In 2019, Sakata Seed America began to pivot focus to an array of existing genetics that show exceptional promise in the CEA market.  We quickly noticed the synergy between the emerging and exponentially growing CEA market and our existing crop business groups. Currently, we are partnering with key market growers to extensively trial existing worldwide Sakata genetics that showed promise for indoor and CEA environments. Through strategic collaborations, exceptional genetics, and continued breeding efforts, coupled with expansion and investment in our Research & Development team, we feel well-equipped to grow our CEA partnerships and supply quality seed in strong supply to the category, backed by excellent service and support.

Last year, to further support the needs of the indoor grower, we launched – a full-scale, online resource cataloging of all that Sakata’s CEA program has to offer. It features the entire CEA product portfolio, downloadable literature materials and tools for cultivation success, a digital sample ordering form and trialing information, a fully responsive seed distributor map, and a staff directory for easy access to product support.


Could you provide a couple of examples of Sakata Seed’s varieties that have shown exceptional performance in indoor growing environments, and what attributes make them well-suited for CEA?

Growers have found success with several of our varieties across varied technologies. A few standouts include Mizuna Mustard Miz America, Kale Blue Ridge, and Pak Choi Joi Choi. Miz America, for example, displays an unparalleled intense color and mild flavor that makes it an ideal component in salad blends. Kale Blue Ridge has shown exceptional yields and uniformity as well as a desirable leaf texture and color. Pak Choi Joi Choi, when grown to a baby leaf stage, is flavorful, attractive, and high yielding, in addition to showing notably high post-harvest quality.


Sakata SeedShare some insights into the unique challenges and opportunities that CEA presents for seed development and production, compared to traditional outdoor farming?

Although grouped under the single broad category of ‘CEA’, indoor growers are extremely diverse in their crop needs, growing conditions, facility types and technology. I would say one of the biggest challenges in seed development is deciding exactly which traits to breed for. Success with one type of grower or technology does not translate into success with all CEA growers, even within the same facility type. We must be able to develop genetics that fulfill the broader common traits needed across the largest number of growers and then depend on growers to manipulate their different technologies and growing methods to control more individual needs within this broader framework.

However, one of the most potentially exciting opportunities that I see in developing future varieties is the ability to focus more of our breeding on consumer-driven traits such as flavor or nutrition over chasing some of the disease resistance needs for outdoor farming.

For seed production, the biggest challenge is clarity around the entire process.  Producing seed is a time intensive process, anywhere from 1 to 2 years from stock seed increases through to cleaning and testing the final crop. Having transparency in understanding the CEA growers’ seed needs in advance, both in timing and quantities, is crucial to planning and providing consistent supplies.


Sakata SeedHow do you identify and prioritize the traits and characteristics that are more important for indoor growers — are you able to collaborate with  growers  to gather feedback and insights?

At times it can be challenging to collect meaningful outside trial data to track our progress toward goals. I would like to see increased direct input from growers and eventually see some uniformity in growing systems and clearer overarching breeding goals.  We have seen the greatest successes and fastest progress when we are able to develop a trusting, open, mutually beneficial trialing collaboration with growers.


Sakata SeedCan you highlight any recent advancements or innovations in seed development within your CEA division?  What varieties or technologies can growers anticipate from Sakata Seed in the near future.

Lettuce, arugula, beet greens, mustard, and pack choi are a few of the crops on which we are gathering data and breeding,  both allowing for crossover commercial products to be used now and for key trait identification for next-generation breeding projects in the pipeline. Our breeders are analyzing traits that will allow for optimum yield, advantageous plant architecture, and noteworthy flavor and texture while displaying a spectrum of colors and textures for consumer interest.

Growing Pains on the Way to a More Resilient Vertical Farming Industry

As we usher in the New Year, a reflection on the dynamic last few months in indoor farming news provides some insight for what to expect in 2023 and beyond. We’ve seen both contractions by organizations like Fifth Season, Kalera and Infarm reevaluating and restructuring under financial pressure, and expansion, with others like GoodLeaf, Crop One and Freight Farms securing additional funding and growing.

Some observers have suggested we’re in the “Trough of Disillusionment” (the third of five phases in the Gartner Hype Cycle) but we’re right where we should be in the development of a healthy new market. Some first movers are finding success and others are still trying to achieve operational efficiency — and in an industry based on unit economics and efficiency (particularly yield per kilowatt hour), it’s all about efficiency.

Vertical farm operations are equal parts ag and tech, and they require incredibly complex systems, including climate control, lighting, irrigation, automation and, most importantly, systems integration. That last one, systems integration, is the linchpin. It is no small task to bring together disparate technology in a cohesive and coherent way that increases productivity and reduces costs, yet “operational efficiency” is generally not highly valued by venture capital investors. Nonetheless, the most successful vertical farming organizations to date have been those closest to achieving “systemness” — a concept most often applied to the healthcare system but also applicable to modern agriculture (both traditional outdoor and controlled environment indoor). Systemness is the highest achievable state of a complex system, with interconnecting elements working together to operate in ways that go beyond the operation of its component parts. In other words, one plus one equals three.

Bowery, an innovation partner of Unfold, is an instructive example. They’ve developed their own “operating system” that harmonizes data from across their facilities and finely tunes growing conditions based on that data. The BoweryOS, as they call it, brings all their systems together under one umbrella and helps them achieve systemness. Some observers are skeptical of claims made about the development of new operating systems and the use of artificial intelligence (AI), but you can’t argue with success. Bowery has doubled their revenue for the second year in a row and is on track to double their number of farms in 2023. Their success demonstrates a high degree of operational efficiency through a data-driven approach.

Unfold 2023 Gold Sponsor Indoor Ag-Con
Unfold is an industry-leading seed and digital solutions company advancing the vertical farming industry.

But even when optimal efficiency is achieved, most vertically farmed products today still fill a premium niche, which is why strong marketing programs are key to communicating value to both consumers and investors.  Singapore based vertical farming company Sustenir, another Unfold innovation partner, is such an example. Introducing the concept of “Superfoods for Supercities,” Sustenir continues to elevate the discussion around nutrient-dense produce and the role vertical farming can play in the health and wellness of consumers. With additional operations in Malaysia and Hong Kong, Sustenir utilizes social media to connect with consumers and promote their own brands. In addition to fresh leafy greens, they “upcycle” waste streams into other products, like their Spectacular Spinach Noodles. This focus on branding and consumer packaged goods mindset is not unique to Sustenir in the vertical farming space, but they lead the Asian market in their emphasis on nutrition and sustainability.

The exciting thing to watch for over the next few years will be the shift toward parity with outdoor growers — at least in the product categories most conducive to vertical farming. We’re going to see a gradual but significant reduction on the cost side, as operations become more efficient, more data is collected and used, and technology costs decline. The very technology that made vertical farming possible in the first place — climate control systems, irrigation systems, and especially LED lighting systems — has steadily fallen in cost and is continuing a downward trend even in the midst of global inflationary pressures. Do you recall when the traditional A-shape LED bulb was introduced at a cost of around $30? Now they’re $3-4 — a 10-fold drop. Here’s how United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) partner U4E describes the advancement: “Technologies for artificial lighting have made tremendous progress … from incandescent lamps, with a visible efficacy of about 10 lumen/watt, to compact fluorescent lighting with 50 lumen/watt, to the LED lamps as we know today of 110 lumen/watt to finally, this new LED breakthrough with incredible efficiency levels – 210 lumen/watt” (emphasis mine).

Even energy — the often-cited Achilles heel of vertical farming — will drop in cost over time as more renewables come online and farms become even more efficient in their energy use. Granted, the average retail price of electricity has risen over the past several years, which is why operators work so hard to secure a stable energy price. In the US, commercial electricity costs have risen roughly 7% from 2014 to 2021 according to Statista and remain on an upward trajectory, while industrial electricity has gone up about 2% over the same time frame. The increase is even higher in other places like Europe and Singapore. We believe co-location of large vertical farms with energy production will drive further efficiencies and cost reductions. This concept, advanced initially by Unfold CEO Sonia Lo, is captured in part in her interview by Greenhouse Grower, titled “Four Concentric Circles of Controlled-Environment Agriculture.” Keep in mind that these things are taking place in the context of an increasingly volatile climate that makes the predictability of indoor farming more and more attractive.

Unfold Indoor Ag-Con 2023 Gold Sponsor

Just as important as reducing costs, we need to continue to boost vertical farming’s productivity.  That’s where Unfold’s work comes in to play. We adamantly believe that productivity starts with better seeds, because even the most efficiently operated and technologically integrated vertical farm can’t afford to produce products from seeds that don’t perform optimally indoors. Our first step has been to screen existing seed libraries to identify the varieties most likely to succeed in indoor environments. With our exclusive license to Bayer genetics in lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, we have a world-class library from which to choose. Using this approach, we will launch a few new romaine varieties in 2023 based on seed lines showing promising traits for vertical farming. Initial tests indicate strong harvest yield numbers and highly consistent saleable yield.

Our second step is to use all the tools of modern breeding to develop novel varieties with the most desired traits. Most genetics for leafy greens thus far have been developed for open field environments, with traits that protect plants from diseases and pests, as well as certain environmental stresses. Unfold is focusing on traits critical for indoor production both from an agronomic and produce quality perspective. In addition to utilizing existing Bayer germplasm, Unfold can access the full Bayer pipeline of genetic diversity to develop novel products honed for indoor production. Finally, as we accumulate performance data across our selection and breeding pipelines, we’re building our AI and data analytics platform to produce new high-performing products for indoor farming customers more quickly.

Tasty Romaine Unfold
Tasty romaine lettuce grown from Unfold seeds

For all of these reasons, Unfold is as confident as ever in the long-term success of vertical farming. As the industry matures, some organizations will succeed and expand while others struggle, contract, restructure or even ultimately fail. Over time, the balance will shift, as companies demonstrating operational excellence will continue to grow and new players learn what works and what doesn’t. That’s the development of a healthy new market. You can see it in the fact that the vertical farming industry is expanding beyond leafy greens into strawberries, tomatoes, and other high value crops.

Vertical farming will always be a supplement and not a replacement for traditional agriculture, but with a global population recently surpassing 8 billion and showing no sign of slowing, it will become an ever more important one — particularly as climate change creates additional pressures on the global food supply. Protected from the ravages of flood, drought, and pests, and closer to the urban centers demanding more fresh, local food, the niche that vertical farming fills right now will only grow. The headwinds currently slowing the industry’s growth are not permanent. Energy prices will eventually stabilize as farms secure their own renewable sources while continuing to improve efficiency through peer learning and technological advancement.

So, let’s be clear-eyed and not disillusioned moving forward. The vertical farming industry is right where it should be. Let’s continue to work together to address some key market needs and add value to consumers.

Have a taste for more? Please visit our website at and follow us on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. Let’s seed the way forward, together.


David Nothmann, COO Unfold

Kimberly Esterkin

Addo Investor Relations,

CEA 4.0 | Accelerating the Development, Advancement & Efficiency of Indoor Farming

Indoor Ag-Con is proud to be an event partner for Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) 4.0, the virtual event focusing on accelerating the development, advancement and efficiency of indoor farming.  This year the event runs over 2 days —  Friday, May 6 and Friday, May 20, 2022.

“This edition of CEA 4.0 will focus on the current evolution of the indoor farming industry to explore how policy is developing with its integration into the sector, how we are helping to drive the circular economy forward, sustainability, integration into traditional food systems, and learning how this is being done from an international perspective. From a technological aspect we will be focusing on seeds and their development, TCEA, grow light solutions, resource efficiencies, automation, energy usage and requirements, innovations in research and technologies, and robotics & AI,” according to Jonathan Martin, director, Tech 4.0.

As part of our event partnership, our Indoor Ag-Con audience is invited  to take advantage of a special VIP upgrade.  You can register for the current lowest price of £4.99 and you’ll be  upgraded manually to a VIP attendee which includes:

  • Full conference & event access provided for the entire event
  • Instant messaging and 1-1 video networking with any attendee
  • Ability to arrange 1-1 video meetings with any attendee
  • Access to recordings of event presentations
  • Customizable company & attendee profiles with various multimedia content options
  • Associated event company branding

Learn more & register at