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It's a bountiful life: Unlocking a plant's potential

July/August 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Breeder works to enhance melons' taste and aroma




Cooking and gardening were among the hobbies that led Jeff Mills to a career breeding plants. He now specializes in cantaloupe and honeydew. Photo courtesy Beth Savidge

The next time you bite into a delicious cantaloupe or honeydew, you might want to thank a plant breeder such as Jeff Mills of Woodland. Every time a new variety is introduced, it represents seven or eight years of patience and diligence on the part of a breeder who has selected the best traits from thousands of plants, then combined those traits into subsequent generations to end up with an ideal melon.

What prompted you to pursue a career in plant breeding? I like to cook and I like to garden. And most importantly, I like to breed plants. I started at Seminis Seed Co. in Woodland (now Monsanto, which was recently purchased by Bayer) and while I was here, I got my master's degree. So, for the past 16 years, I have been working on cantaloupe and honeydew.

How do you create a new melon variety? We develop new lines of melons and I do that largely in the greenhouse. We develop populations and we select the best plants from those populations and continue to do that over multiple generations until they are stable and uniform. Then we make hybrids from these inbred lines by crossing one with another. Those hybrids are what is sold to customers (farmers) and what is grown commercially.

Describe your selection process. I was just looking at plants in the greenhouse this morning—looking at plants, tasting the fruit, deciding which I was going to keep and which were going into the trash. It probably takes a couple thousand plants to come up with something we like. I would say it takes three or four years to develop it and another four years before we sell it.

What are some of the characteristics you look for? Flavor and aroma are very important. They need to taste good and as someone who likes to cook and likes to eat, I really enjoy that aspect of my work. You also need good yields and disease resistance. You need an appearance and size distribution that is going to make an attractive product for the consumer and sizes that the grower can sell.

Will anything new be released this year? We are launching a new honeydew called Flavor Journey. It is fantastic and I am very proud of it. I developed it right here: four years to develop it, another four years to study it and this is the first year for sales.

Tell us something about the company's plant-breeding program. It is a little-known fact, but Monsanto is the world's largest supplier of vegetable seeds. Our breeders have introduced the EverMild, an onion that doesn't make you cry; the Frescada lettuce that stays fresh longer; and the BellaFina, a single-serving-sized bell pepper. Here in Woodland, we breed melons, watermelons, onions, hot peppers and tomatoes.


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