Sevita International plants North Dundas on the global soybean map

Sandy Hart, PROSeeds Business Manager. PROSeeds is the in-house seed brand of Sevita International in Inkerman. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

INKERMAN — Diners in Japan have deep and established links to the fields of North Dundas through a highly specialized soybean trade developed and fostered through the years by Sevita International.

Because it’s such a food staple in the land of the rising sun, consumers in that country are naturally attuned to the subtleties and flavours of different kinds of soybeans. That includes varieties used specifically to make ‘natto’, a fermented breakfast dish at least as popular as “Wheaties” in the west.

Enter Sevita, an established player supplying eastern Canadian soybeans developed and grown to the exacting standards and palates of the Japanese and, to a lesser degree, markets in Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and China.

Sevita annually contracts farmers to produce 100,000 tonnes of soybeans destined for export, and approximately a third of that yield comes from Eastern Ontario. About 400 growers take part each year, exclusively planting soybean varieties from the private company’s in-house, specialized seed brand, PROSeeds, on a combined 100,000 acres (one acre produces about one tonne of final product).

Today, after years of work, the majority of that seed represents varieties developed right here in North Dundas soil, under a long-standing genetics program in the fields surrounding the firm’s Inkerman co-headquarters.

Soybean varieties in development at Sevita — an estimated 30,000 varieties evaluated in 2019 alone. Mark MacDuff holds the box of samples. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Sevita’s growers also follow a strict  “Identity Preserved” (IP) protocol to ensure the final product hits the precise mark with the overseas buyers.

“Consistency and taste are very, very important to the Japanese consumer,” explains Sandy Hart, Business Manager – PROSeeds. “They want to make sure the product they put into a bag, each and every day, tastes the same when you buy it this week, next week, the week after that,” he explains, agreeing it’s really no different from the North American consumer’s expectation of popular supermarket brands here, like Corn Flakes.

Likewise, “your box of Kikkoman soymilk better taste the same every time you crack one open,” he says.

“We’ll provide beans with certain taste profiles, sucrose levels, lipoxygenase, and certainly protein is still the big one,” Hart says. “Seed size is important to them. They like a nice big bean for tofu production, so they’re a lot pickier and a lot more quality-conscious than the Canadian consumer is for soy products — at least today.”

Beyond soymilk, natto and tofu, the Sevita-supplied soybeans are also processed into miso, soy sauce and soy cream in Japan.

Sevita’s share of the market represents “a good chunk” of the roughly 800,000 tonnes of Canadian soybeans consumed in total by the Japanese each year, and Hart points out the company can’t keep up with demand.

Buyers of Sevita’s crop know they are “getting a product they can’t get anywhere else,” he adds.

The varieties created in North Dundas are jealously guarded as an intellectual property investment and released only to farmers that work with Sevita. “It’s something of particular value to a specific end use on the other side of the world,” he explains, “so we don’t want to let it out of the gate into the hands of our competitors and get into a price war.”

With six to 15 new varieties debuting every year, he cites “Skyline” as a recent star developed at the Inkerman operation only two years ago, now recognized as “one of the premier tofu beans you can purchase in Japan, for sure.”

Strong demand means strong prices, and they’re always recruiting new producers to try and satiate the overseas appetite for Sevita soybeans. Current market conditions mean that growers can realize an economic benefit of around $80/acre over commodity soybean production, he says, if they’re willing to put in the extra work on weed control. (As per the market preference in Japan, the involved varieties are non-genetically modified organisms [non-GMO] — which adds to the challenge of keeping weeds at bay. Herbicides, however, are allowed.)

“What we’re looking at right now is easily the most attractive opportunity we’ve seen in the last six years,” he says of the “very strong economic argument” in favour of becoming a grower in 2019.

A select cadre of growers also produce the seed for next year’s crop, and the company runs an impressive Guy Rd. facility for cleaning and bagging this seed. A similar unit operates in Woodstock, where the company also maintains a second headquarters as a result of the merger that created Sevita in 2012. At the time, Inkerman’s Hendrik Seeds and Hendrik AgriFoods came together with Woodstock’s PROSeeds Marketing and another outfit, Agworks, to form the new entity. Today, the corporation employs a workforce of 70 and is headed by Don Rees as president.

Soybean still on the plant. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Hart is the son of the founder of PROSeeds Marketing. Recently moved to North Dundas with his wife, he says he’s “loving” life in his new community — including his work environment inside the former Inkerman Public School building that was bought up by the Hendrik operation several years ago.

And in an “exciting” new development for the company, he revealed that Sevita would expand its crop production into a western Canadian province and a handful of midwestern U.S. states for the first time in the spring of 2019. “We’re looking to diversify our geographic production base,” he says, explaining this will cut the risks associated with concentrating their crop in a smaller area.

Sevita has also taken steps to produce its own line of conventional (GMO) soybeans for regular commodity crops. That’s thanks to a research agreement with Corteva AgriScience. “And that’s huge for us, because up until now we have never sold a GMO soybean that was from our own program, they’ve always been licensed from others. So we have kind of taken over another swath of the value chain there,” he says.

Some of the company’s developed-in-North Dundas seed also finds its way to Eastern Europe, he says, where they’ve developed a business marketing unit in Russia and Ukraine.

No matter how you say it — hai or da — that’s a big ‘yes’ for an agricultural product rooted right here in the township. Who knew the humble soybean would put North Dundas on the global map?

Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the township’s 2019 Explore North Dundas Spring/Summer Resource Guide. The involved interviews took place in the first quarter of 2019.

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