By Brandie Piper
Growing up in the Mojave Desert, Bill Johnson’s parents prohibited him from squirting water from the hose for fun in his backyard. There was one exception, however: his parents permitted him to use the hose if he was growing a garden.
Thankfully for Bill, he lived near a generous neighbor with a flourishing garden. At 5 years old, Johnson was growing zucchini and watermelon, learning strategies and techniques in planting, growing and harvesting a garden from his neighbor. The pair hung out together for an hour or two every week, and the neighbor even shared his seeds and seedlings.
And so began Johnson’s love affair with vegetables, and in particular squash. He’s now a squash breeder for Seminis®, a brand of Monsanto Vegetable Seeds division.
“In my first garden, I picked hundreds of watermelons, but the largest was about the size of a tennis ball,” said Johnson. “Growing in gravel, in the desert, at high density, with high winds and temperatures is like growing a Bonsai garden. But my tiny watermelons were delicious.”
Over the years, he learned and became better at gardening. He was able to grow many miniature vegetables, and some regular-sized ones. He was particularly successful with zucchini and asparagus, which were well-adapted to production in the hot, windy environment.
“By the time I was a teenager, I was making half-decent money growing asparagus and selling it around town,” said Johnson.
Becoming a vegetable breeder
Somewhere between the watermelon and asparagus, Johnson decided he wanted to be a vegetable breeder. He got lucky, and landed a job with his favorite crop – squash. He finds his job interesting because of the very unique cultural preferences found all around the world.
“One of the interesting things about working on vegetables is that there are a whole lot of cultural specificities as far as what people want,” he said. “People want a specific color, a specific shape, and they want it at their convenience.”
Johnson’s job as a squash breeder is part art, part science. As a breeder at Monsanto, he has a lot of squash species and varieties that he and the team grow every year. Think of it in terms of a population. Within the population, Johnson looks for two plants, called parents, with beneficial characteristics, such as plants that produce more vegetables than other ones or tolerance to a specific disease. He breeds these parents together to create a new hybrid (the offspring of the parents), which hopefully has the best characteristics of the parent squash.
“During our careful evaluation of the newly created hybrids, we verify that they are indeed more valuable to a grower than the existing varieties available on the market,” Johnson said. “Some of the characteristics which would make a new hybrid more valuable than existing hybrids are improved yield potential (more vegetables produced than comparative plants), improved resistance to pests or diseases, improved ease of harvest, or improved fruit quality or uniformity.”
Types of squash and consumer preference
There are three major species of squash that are important to Seminis® farmer customers:
- Cucurbita pepo (zucchini, pumpkins used for carving, yellow squashes, acorn squash, scallop squash)
- Cucurbita maxima (giant pumpkins, buttercup squash, Turk’s Turban, Redondo del Tronco, kabocha, Jarrahdale)
- Cucurbita moschata (butternut squash, most tropical pumpkins, pie pumpkins, Menina Brasileira)
Preferred squash types vary greatly in regions throughout the world, so Johnson’s job is to breed predictable-looking and tasting vegetables to suit local preferences, like grey zucchinis, which are popular in Mexico.
“Consumer preference is really critical when it comes to specific color and shape expected in each market, so it’s all about conformity to what’s expected,” said Johnson. “If I surprise someone, I’ve failed at my job.”
Throughout his career Johnson has had the opportunity to taste squash you don’t typically find growing near the Monsanto Vegetable Seeds research and development site in Woodland, California. One of his favorites he suggests for home gardeners to try is the aforementioned Menina Brasileira, which roughly translates as “Brazilian Girl.”
“Menina Brasileira is a variety of a type that is similar to a high-fiber butternut squash, but it’s harvested immature and used like a zucchini. It’s great for grilling,” he said.
He also likes the traditional variety Blue Hubbard, which he says has an incredible flavor, texture, and shelf life, and the quality peaks in late winter after long term storage.
“If you store it properly, it’ll be the best squash you can pull out in February, March, and April and still have excellent quality,” said Johnson. “But you might need a machete to chop it. It’s pretty big and hard.”
The future of squash
Johnson’s extensive knowledge comes from spending the past 15 years breeding squash, a career he had planned by the time he arrived at college. But despite his mastery of the gourd and all of the delicious species of squash in the world, he doesn’t expect major changes in regional preferences within his lifetime. However, one thing is encouraging: vegetable consumption habits.
“I expect the trend for increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables will continue as incomes rise globally, and that can only be good for squash,” Johnson said.