Monsanto is embarking on a $31 million expansion of its Woodland vegetable seed research and development headquarters, a project that some see as a sign of Yolo County's emergence as a center for seed science.
The 90,000-square-foot expansion will add laboratory and office space, nearly doubling the size of the Monsanto campus on Woodland's outskirts to 200,000 square feet. Monsanto officials expect the project to be complete by August 2013. Crews have been at work on the site since late April.
"It's an important signal that this is a great place to be," said Kent Bradford, director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis, and a leader of Seed Central, a university-led initiative to attract seed industry to the Davis area. "It capitalizes on UC Davis and the research capacity of the companies."
Much of the expansion will be dedicated to researching and developing disease-resistant vegetables, said Mark Oppenhuizen, Monsanto's strategy and operations lead for research and development in Woodland.
"We don't only develop seeds for the Central Valley it's global in scope," Oppenhuizen said. The goal, he said, is to develop better, healthier vegetable varieties with natural disease resistance so growers can use fewer fungicides.
"This is a very large investment to be made," said Wes Ervin, Yolo County's economic development manager. "We're delighted they picked this environment, this location, this county."
For Monsanto, it's further investment in a region it sees as a fertile laboratory for its science.
"The Central Valley provides half of the vegetable crops for the whole U.S., so it's a great place for a seed company to be located, to be close to our customers and to understand their issues," Oppenhuizen said.
For Yolo County, it's another sign of growth in an industry it has worked years to cultivate. Today, more than 30 companies have a seed research presence in Yolo County, Ervin said.
Yolo County and UC Davis began to contemplate the development of ag science as an economic engine in the mid-1990s, Bradford said.
Yolo leaders have worked to make the county a hub for such research, from steering commercial development to Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento and away from farmland to working with UC Davis to bring vegetable seed research to the area.
"We worked with University of California to create a brand and take advantage of the concentration of seed research centered around UC Davis," Ervin said. "We'd like to say that we have the largest concentration of vegetable seed research in the country."
While local leaders are excited about the Monsanto expansion, others are deeply concerned about Monsanto's development of genetically modified seeds and food and the labeling of genetically modified foods, often called "GMOs" for genetically modified organisms.
Monsanto's Davis offices were the site of Occupy-style protests in March over the issue.
This November, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which calls for mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. The measure is backed by a number of consumer and public health groups, organic growers and businesses.
Growers and grocery associations are lined up against the proposition. Monsanto and DuPont are major funders of the No on 37 campaign and have spent millions of dollars in recent years to stave off efforts to label GMOs.
Today, Monsanto's Woodland seed research site is a cobble of laboratories, greenhouses and offices on Highway 16 just west of town, scattered over 144 acres. Another 200 acres are leased from local growers.
Here, technicians test tomatoes for texture and flavor and peppers for pungency, mimicking in the lab the crops' journey from field to truck to grocer.
Summer is the busiest time of the year at the labs, with researchers many of whom are student-interns from UC Davis working on scores of projects on some 22 different crops from carrots to onions, lettuce to melons.
"Having the university here is a great asset," Oppenhuizen said. "We find (the students) a great resource."
Outside, construction crews were at work on the project site against a field of corn last week, while across Highway 16, a pair of tractors discing a nearby field kicked up clouds of dust.
The expansion is a response to rapid growth at the Monsanto campus after some five years of steady hiring, which has pushed scientists and laboratories into portable buildings,
About 245 employees work at the Woodland site, including 70 scientists and support staff brought on in the last four to five years, Oppenhuizen said.
In another lab, Rashmi Deb leads a small team mining DNA from dehydrated, fingernail-size vegetable plant samples collected from around the world. "Spain, the Netherlands, Mexico, China, France, Morocco, Turkey, you name it," Deb said.
Their work will help growers breed positive characteristics like taste, texture and color while making the plants more resistant to disease, Deb said.
It's science that Yolo County is relying on to propel its evolving agricultural economy.
With a jobless rate of 10.5 percent in Yolo County and 12.4 percent in Woodland, ag science has been a bright spot even as older standbys such as tomato and sugar beet processing have faded away, Ervin said.
"We lost a lot of the processors. We lost sugar beets, but we gained organic crops, wine grapes, nuts," he said. But, "we're starting to see significant new investment" in Yolo County, Ervin continued.
"Agriculture has actually been pretty good the last few years. The need for food will always be there."