Special to this publication


It takes several components to produce a crop: sunshine, water and soil, to name a few. A critical component for any crop, though, is the seed, maintains Joe Vandiver, this year’s president of the Seed Trade Association of Arizona.

“You have to have it to produce a crop. Without seed, you have nothing.”

Producing that seed in the Desert Southwest is an industry worth millions of dollars, supplying much of the seed needed by farmers not only in the United States but in the world for vegetables, grasses and forage crops.

And so Vandiver selected as the theme for the organization’s upcoming 31st annual convention: “Seed: The Livelihood of Agriculture.” The convention will be held May 4-5 at the Poco Diablo Resort in Sedona, where members and guests will gather to hear about current issues and challenges facing the industry, honor longtime member Denney McKay who was the 2006 STAA president, participate in a golf tournament and renew old relationships or form new ones.

Seed Trade Association of Arizona President Joe Vandiver inspects fall cantaloupe production in Arizona. Vandiver is the North American Melon Crop Specialist for Rijk Zwaan USA, who is based in Brawley.

Keynote speaker Clint Chandler, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, will speak on the Colorado River water rights/distribution between Arizona and California. Other speakers include an update on current legislative issues affecting Arizona agriculture by Phil Bashaw, chief executive officer of the Arizona Farm Bureau; University of Arizona-Yuma update on current academic programs by Dr. Tanya Hodges, the UA regional academic program coordinator for Yuma, La Paz and Imperial counties; an update on industry issues by John Marchese, Western Region vice president of the American Seed Trade Association; and a hemp update by Brian McGrew, manager of the Arizona Department of Agriculture Environmental and Plant Services Division Industrial Hemp Program.

A highlight of the convention each year is the presentation of scholarships to college students who plan to pursue careers in agriculture. Last year, STAA gave more than $9,000 to 10 students. University of Arizona students include Jesus Andrade, Joseph Guler, Rylee Presley, Joanna Sanchez, Jeremy Carr, Jackie Johnson, Iza Barrandey and Haben Gaim. Jose Ledesma is attending Imperial Valley College and Jaisyn Wolfe is attending another college.


A fall cantaloupe crop is growing in an Arizona field. Arizona and California are the primary sources of production for the melon crop in the United States.

While the organization’s name implies it is for the seed industry in Arizona, STAA also includes members from Southern California who often have taken an active role. An example is current STAA President Vandiver, the North American Melon Crop Specialist for Rijk Zwaan USA, who is based in Brawley.


“As your president for this term, I want to bring attention to the importance that Arizona agriculture plays in the global economy,” Vandiver wrote in his presidential message. “Arizona produces millions of dollars’ worth of seed that is distributed throughout the world. Also, there are hundreds of seed companies bringing their unique genetics to Arizona to help supply grower demand in many historical and new crops. The STAA group focus is to better understand the complexities of taking a crop from tillage to market. We strive to be the voice for seed companies, farming operations, grower/shipper entities, exporting and production companies for fair market solutions.”


It's difficult to place a dollar value on the seed industry in Arizona or its share of the more than $23.3 billion economic impact agriculture and agribusiness have on the state. However, officials place it at tens of millions of dollars. That’s especially true when factoring in not only vegetable seed crops but also the flower, grass and forage seed crops that are grown in Yuma County and other parts of Arizona. While much of the seed is produced for domestic markets, Arizona-grown seed is a major international export crop, finding its way to markets in dozens of countries from Argentina to Vietnam.


Meanwhile, Imperial County, California, produced seed crops and nursery products on 54,798 harvested acres for a gross value of nearly $117.7 million, according to the 2021 Imperial County Agriculture Crop and Livestock Report. That’s a 23 percent increase from the previous year.


One of the biggest challenges currently facing the entire agriculture production in the Desert Southwest - the epicenter of the nation’s seed industry - is water. Key reservoirs are at only about one-third of capacity and water users face cutbacks in their supply due to a lingering drought of more than two decades. Even with this winter’s above-normal precipitation, and in California’s case a deluge brought by an onslaught of powerful atmospheric rivers, availability of water to sustain agriculture remains a grave concern. That’s true even if this year’s wet winter signals a new normal for the West, with experts warning that demand for water will keep outpacing the supply.


“The Colorado River is being more fully used because of population growth, growth of industry, more agriculture, more forage for dairies,” said Paul Brierley, director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture. “There’s a lot more demand on the system. Even with the wet winter, it will take a lot to refill the reservoirs. And everyone wants to take their full allocation. Utah wants to put in a pipeline to divert Colorado River water … the tribes want their allocations. 

There just are more demands on the river.”


Cooperative Extensions in both Yuma County and Imperial County are involved in various studies and tests of new technology, products and farming methods to provide resources to enable farmers to continue to grow crops that feed and clothe people around the world, not to mention the seeds needed to produce those crops.


The University of Arizona has formed the Presidential Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Food in a Drying Climate to seek input from farmers, including the seed industry, on the potential impact of climate change they see on agriculture and what resources UA might provide to help the industry remain as productive as possible. For more information, contact Brierley, the commission chairman, at 928-782-5864 or paulbrierley@arizona.edu.


Another issue of concern, especially for the produce industry, is the potential impact on food safety from hundreds of thousands of migrants walking through fields along the border as they enter the U.S. to seek asylum. In an effort to protect the integrity of the produce, Yuma County, at its own expense, has placed portable toilets in various locations along the border to keep migrants from contaminating the crops.


“Illegal immigration doesn’t impact just the ag community,” Vandiver said. “It affects everyone in different ways. Farmers aren’t able to harvest part of their field because migrants walked through it. People may not understand that impact – they don’t think about what it takes to get a head of lettuce to the store.”

Vandiver went to work right out of high school for the University of California Desert Research Center in Holtville, working for a plant breeder out of UC-Davis. 


He was there for 10 years and enjoyed the work so much he changed his original aspirations of becoming a Game and Fish officer. While working, he managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and crop science. After graduating in 1998, he went to work for Keithly-Williams as a product development specialist covering the entire state of California for a while. In 2013, he joined Rijk Zwaan USA.


He explained that Rijk Zwaan, headquartered in the Netherlands, is one of the largest private family-owned vegetable breeding companies in the world with offices in more than 100 countries and 4,000 employees globally. Its two biggest crops in the U.S. are spinach and Salanova artisan lettuce. Melons and pickling cucumbers also are major crops. Vandiver noted that 90 percent of cantaloupes produced in the United States are grown in Arizona and California, while 90 percent of watermelons are produced in the East Coast.


Joe Vandiver (left), the North American Melon Crop Specialist for Rijk Zwaan USA, inspects a cantaloupe field in Imperial Valley. With him is Nathan Peretz, product development specialist for Rijk Zwaan. Vandiver is this year’s president of the Seed Trade Association of Arizona.

Vandiver has been a member of STAA for 10 years, encouraged by colleagues in both Arizona and California to get involved. One day he got a phone call informing him he was selected as the second vice president; three years later he’s the president.

“It’s an opportunity to be connected in Arizona,” he said of STAA. “Some of my largest customers are in Arizona … friends and colleagues.”

For more information about STAA, visit the organization’s website: arizonaseedtrade.org.