(Dec. 4, 12:12 p.m.) Monsanto Co. is breaking into the vegetable seed business with a focus on developing products based on consumer preferences.

The St. Louis-based seed and agricultural product company launched its vegetable segment, Monsanto Vegetables, with the purchase of Seminis Vegetable Seeds Inc. three years ago, and has since taken the segment through four significant acquisitions and up to $750 million in sales in 2007.

The vegetable seed division, which is under the new leadership of Consuelo Madere, is now three segments in itself: a protected culture (greenhouse/shade house, etc.) segment, an open-field segment and a smaller, regionally-focused segment. Madere took over as president of Monsanto Vegetables this year when Kerry Preete was promoted to vice president of international for Monsanto Co.

Madere joined the division just as its next biggest acquisition, DeRuiter Seed Co., joined the company this summer.

“Seminis was more focused on open-field, with a very small program in protected culture,” Madere said. “DeRuiter was the opposite, with a very strong protected culture program, and very little in the open-field.”

The DeRuiter acquisition became final at the end of June. Meanwhile, throughout 2008, the company also acquired three smaller seed companies, which it has combined into a holding group called International Seed Group, the third segment of Monsanto Vegetables.

Holland-based Western Seed, Italy-based Peotec and French company Poloni all make up International Seed Group.

Monsanto plans to keep using Seminis and DeRuiter as brand names, given their already established brand equity.

“Right now we have no plans to change that,” Madere said. “We will keep those brand names in the market.”

Madere said Monsanto will take its experience in technology, research and development to further the business of the seed companies. Madere said she worked in various departments, including in row crop management and in more technical roles, during her 26 years with Monsanto. She said the position was a natural migration for her.

Working with customers

“One key area of focus is how we get people to want to eat more fruits and vegetables,” Madere said. “What can we do from a technology standpoint to get people to want to eat more?”

Some key factors in this, she said, are how to make vegetables more appealing and more nutritious.

One project the company is working on right now, Madere said, deals with the amount of juice produced in melons.

“Melons, for example, when you buy from a store and they’re already cut, consumers don’t like it when there’s a lot of juice in the bottom of the container,” she said. “So how do you make one that doesn’t leak as much?”

Another focus, she said, is identifying the components that impact a tomato, and breeding fruit that always tastes fresh and tastes like a tomato.

“We do our own research, but we also talk to people already in the industry to find out, ‘do your customers want this?’” Madere said.

Europe remains the biggest business segment for Monsanto Vegetables, as it did for the original DeRuiter.

“When you look at the vegetable business, a large segment is in Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” Madere said. “With the acquisition of DeRuiter, most of their business is in Europe. So, if you look at Monsanto Vegetables today, Europe is probably the biggest component, followed by North America, then South America and Asia.”

The company has plans to grow in Asia, specifically India and China, she said.

“That’s not a surprise,” she said. “I think everyone sees India as a great potential market.”

In identifying target markets, Monsanto has also trimmed down some of its acquired companies’ commodity offerings in order to focus on a more manageable segment. The company cut down Seminis’ commodity offerings from 64 to 25.

“Seminis was big in tomatoes, but we think we’ll see more of the tomato category going to protected culture,” Madere said.

DeRuiter’s strengths are in tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, with a smaller amount of business in melons and eggplant.

“I think the changes are really more focused on successful integration of these businesses and the company’s research and development approach,” Madere said.

Monsanto’s new fiscal year started Sept. 1, and this will be the first full year DeRuiter will be on the books. The company’s goal is to become a $1 billion business by 2012.

“As we look at vegetables, we think biotech has promise,” Madere said. “We do think there is a role biotech can play, but we’re keeping the focus on conventional breeding for now.”

DeRuiter retains its headquarters in The Netherlands, while Seminis has its world headquarters in St. Louis.