SANTA MARIA, Calif. —Since expanding its North American lettuce reach after acquiring two California seed companies, Syngenta has begun carving out a place for itself in a highly competitive segment of the industry.

In late 2009, the company acquired Santa Maria-based Pybas Vegetable Seed Co. and Salinas-based Synergene Seed & Technology Inc. Syngenta, which has U.S. and global divisions, is based in Switzerland.

“They were two relatively smaller companies that had very good local germplasm and expertise, but were limited in resources and their ability to access some of the more advanced technologies, like marker-assisted breeding,” said Rick Mitchell, business development lead for vegetables at Boise, Idaho-based Syngenta Seeds Inc.

“Markers determine when genes for disease resistance or quality have moved. It speeds up conventional breeding.”

Breeding continues.

Among other moves, Mitchell said, Syngenta has entered into several confidentiality agreements with grower-shippers interested in customizing lettuce varieties for their harvesting or planting operations.

“With key customers we’re pursuing varieties that are more adaptable to labor savings in the field by machine harvest, or that don’t require as much manual manipulation in the plants, to increase the shipper’s efficiencies,” he said. “If you can match genetics to growers’ equipment, to the processes they use, it’s tremendously valuable.”

The lettuce seed market is valued at about $160 million worldwide.

Other leaf programs at Syngenta include spring mix and spinach. However, the future, Mitchell said, could increasingly be in small lettuce heads.

“We’re starting to bring over mini romaines and mini butters from Syngenta in Europe and getting growers to evaluate them,” he said. “Everybody’s looking at mini varieties in whole head. Spring mix is starting to fragment a bit. Some of it is going to new multileaf types.”

Current Syngenta offerings include traditionally sized Rio Bravo romaine and Reliant iceberg varieties.

Rio Bravo saw its first trials about two years ago, before the merger. Afterward, Syngenta increased the field and trial activity. The romaine was particularly effective, Mitchell said, against a virus that’s been problematic in the Salinas area.

“The last several seasons in Salinas, growers have battled tomato bushy stunt virus,” he said. “It’s not a big problem for tomato growers but it can decimate lettuce fields and has in the last couple of years. The virus seems to have originated near riverbeds there and spread. But in high-pressure areas, Rio Bravo has performed without being impacted.”

Another priority is mildew resistance in romaine and iceberg, especially to downy mildew.

Naturally breeders try to include some traits even as they exclude others. With romaine, for example, tightness of leaf structure contributes to higher pack outs of hearts from the field. That’s one of Syngenta’s marketing claims for Rio Bravo.

Reliant iceberg was initially targeted for desert deals, Mitchell said, but has seen some use in Salinas.

The desert deals are competitive for seed companies in part because of the number of varieties that can come into play. Some may have planting windows of just a week.