Hot Tomato

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2008

Bill Kazokas has both arms deep in a white plastic bucket, swishing, ripping, tearing and further demolishing already overripe red tomatoes.

He’s looking for seeds, an honorable task, but it’s making quite a mess. Seeing a guest come upon him, his first instinct is to extend a hand in greeting. But as the visitor recoils at his fruit-bloodied hands, Kazokas laughs and thinks better of it.

Here off Crosby Road in Myakka City, Kazokas represents the interests of Enza Zaden Research, a Dutch seed company. His assignment? Plant the finest tomato and pepper seeds from around the world and determine which bears the best genetic code for thriving in Florida’s heat and humidity—not to mention native insects and a plague of plant-attacking diseases.

If Enza Zaden doesn’t ring any bells in your house, you might recognize one of the products of its research: Campari tomatoes, found in every Publix Super Market.

Zaden is Dutch for seed. Enza is a conglomeration of the old company’s names. It started in the 1950s in a small Holland town called Enkhuizen, and so it was known as Enkhuizen Seed or Enza, Enkhuizen Zaden. They shortened it to Enza and then added the Zaden on the end. The company—ranked fifth in sales out of the 10 competitor companies around the world and reporting $250 million a year in sales and 1,000 employees—is actually well-known in Europe but a relative newcomer to North America.

As for Kazokas, the 46-year-old tomato breeder and station manager took the long way to Manatee, starting life on a cattle ranch in Broken Arrow, Okla. He attended Oklahoma State University, but staying close to home was never in the cards for this son of an oilman.

“My father’s travels opened the world to me,” Kazokas says. “He would come back with great stories. He was in Scotland. He was in Nigeria and Indonesia. So even though I grew up in Oklahoma, I had a very broad view of the world.”

After graduation, Kazokas worked a few years in ornamentals, then struck out on his own with a horticultural business, a nursery and a landscaping business. (The man does not lack in ambition—or energy.) “I always had the farm boy in me, was always farming and gardening, and I loved tractors,” he says.

His first year of marriage was hard because the company was pulling him in so many different directions. “It wasn’t a life I wanted,” he explains. “I missed being with plants and close to the earth and was tired of shuffling papers. So I threw the whole thing out, sold it for a song and decided to go back to graduate school.”

That decision brought him to the University of Florida in Gainesville for a Ph.D. in plant breeding.

Then a job opportunity came up in Mexico and Kazokas, who speaks fluent Spanish, took it. He worked as an organic farmer at a health spa, Rancho La Puerta, which grew all its own food for guests.

“I’d always been fascinated with plant breeding and we had 300 types of lettuce and 50 different types of tomatoes. The guests, of course, loved it. They had no idea there were that many varieties of anything,” Kazokas says.

While he was in Mexico, Kazokas, who has a second identity online as organic/Zen farming consultant “Farmer Bill” (, met the founder of Jurlique, an Australian skincare line. Jurlique was founded in Australia 20 years ago by a German chemist who believed that anything put on skin should be pristine. All his ingredients were organically grown and processed without the harsh petroleum that goes into a lot of skincare products. Jurlique needed someone to manage its Australian farms and develop new varieties. “A lot of the herbs they were using were sort of wild,” Kazokas says. “They hadn’t been selected intentionally for higher content of certain compounds that they were looking for. They needed a grower and a breeder. So that’s how we got to Australia.”

That job lasted just a year, because another irresistible opportunity presented itself in May 2006: tomato breeder and station manager for Enza Zaden, not in Holland, but in Florida.

“My father’s getting up in age and we wanted to get a little bit closer to him. He lives in Oklahoma on the family ranch. So I started casting my net for something back here stateside, and it was serendipitous,” Kazokas says. “I just happened to be looking at a time when they were looking for somebody with my skill set. And my wife grew up in Florida. It just all clicked.”

When Kazokas, his wife, and their now-13-year-old son came to Florida, their arrival was also Enza Zaden’s arrival. The company had no presence here at all; Kazokas was given a multimillion-dollar budget and charged with building a breeding station from scratch.

“Basically, I was dropped off with my suitcases and told to go find land, go find the most logical place to build a breeding station for the company, focusing on tomatoes and peppers,” he says. “I traveled throughout the state. The company knew it wanted to be in Florida because we’re unique in that we have a subtropical climate quite similar to some of our other market areas in the world: southern China, Indonesia, northern Australia. They felt that a breeding station here could not only develop products for Florida and the east coast of the United States but could also transfer over to some of these other areas.”

Kazokas bought the 46-acre Enza Zaden site (formerly used for cattle), hired a farm manager, Mike Smith, and a field technician. So far, the trio has 7.5 acres in production.

“As our tomato and pepper programs build, we’ll be bringing in more material, especially from some of our other breeding stations,” Kazokas says. “It’s all about swapping, almost like baseball cards. You have your favorite ones, the good players, and you swap with other people if you have duplicates. Within the company, we swap genetics around. So we’re introducing material from our breeding stations in Turkey, Spain and Mexico.”

Within two years, most of the land will be in production; there is also a new home under construction at the street end of the property that Kazokas and his family hope to occupy shortly. And two years from now, the staff will be much larger, including a pepper breeder, a technician, a breeder’s assistant for each crop, then a plant pathologist and their assistant. At full employment, the Enza Zaden farm will have 12 to 20 employees with annual salaries ranging from $50,000 to $55,000.

As for what he’ll be growing, think big.

“We’re focusing on the primary markets for North America, and that’s going to be the beef tomato, the Roma tomato, and then within those are some size classes,” Kazokas says. “We’ll be looking at the large slicing-type beef tomato as well as the smaller greenhouse size that people are buying now, the tomato on the vine, for example. We probably will get into cherry tomato breeding and grape tomato breeding.”

But don’t expect to buy “Enza Zaden” brand tomatoes and peppers at your local supermarket or even roadside stand. They’re not in the business of selling produce. Enza Zaden’s business is developing hearty new seed varieties and then sells the seeds—which, he says, are competitively priced—to growers.

“I’ll give you an example,” Kazokas says. “One of our premier products here in the U.S. that most Americans are familiar with is the Campari tomato. This is a greenhouse product that has a unique niche. It’s called a cocktail tomato, which is something that Enza developed. It’s larger than a cherry but smaller than the big beef slicers that we’re used to seeing. Families are smaller, and often, that giant tomato never gets eaten. Half of it withers away in the refrigerator. This concept of having a small but super-high quality, high flavor, very bright red and always-consistent tomato in the way it tastes is the direction that Enza goes. It sells itself. And where all this is leading is toward new products, new ways of looking at tomatoes and peppers.”

Next up from Enza Zaden, which will soon appear on American store shelves, are miniature bell peppers in all different colors to be eaten fresh on a party tray. Rather than slicing the bells, like a lot of people do, and serving them with dipping sauce, these will be whole little peppers in yellow and orange, red and green. They will be marketed as “sweet bites.”

‘The nuts and bolts of developing seed varieties are out there in the field,” Kazokas says. “You might say that it’s a sped-up form of evolution in that it’s directed by man rather than directed by mere chance. What we’re doing is putting two parents together and looking at offspring, selecting the progeny that has the characteristics that we’re looking for, and then further refining that, taking those progeny from different lines and using those as parents.

“We’re continuously going forward and steering, directing this evolution. And when we have what we feel is a superior line to what’s currently available, then we will take that seed, provide it to some different commercial growers, and let them try it in their fields and see if it’s competitive or better than what they’re currently growing>”

This is not genetic engineering, by the way. Enza Zaden years ago decided not to pursue that route. The company is not crossing species boundaries or inserting bacterial genes into carrots.

The growers, in a way, sell themselves on Enza Zaden’s varieties. Their marketplace feedback is invaluable because, although the company tries to mimic the growing conditions of a commercial operation out in its breeding fields, it’s never really the same because of all the genetic variation.

What does all this mean to the monumentally important tomato fields of Manatee and Hillsborough counties? Can Enza Zaden save local tomato farms by creating a locally grown super-tomato?

“I believe,” Kazokas says, “that the future of agriculture in the United States is going to look like Europe looks today, which is a higher quality, more locally distributed market and more product-related agriculture. Europeans are very closely tied to the quality of their food. They will wait for that certain month when they know that peaches from that certain region are coming in or that cheese from the locality they brag about [is ready]. If your tomatoes get mixed in with 20 other growers’ tomatoes, what difference does the quality make as long as it passes the minimum standard? But if you’re selling a product and you’ve got your name on it, people are going to expect you to maintain that quality, but then you can command higher prices.

“We located in Manatee County to be close to the growers. And our varieties have to be tested on commercial farms. It has to be realistic to what’s happening now and what’s happening five years from now. I’m very fortunate that I have a farm manager who’s a former commercial grower. He did most of his growing in the Ruskin area, and he gives me important feedback. As a breeder, we’re steering these genetics in certain directions. I want to make sure I’m headed in the right direction. And growers provide that feedback. First and foremost, we’re committed to the Florida tomato grower. So if we can develop a product we feel can withstand the rigors of Florida, which is high temperature, high humidity, year-round pest pressure, year-round disease pressure, then we can take it all the way up the coast.”

Kazokas expects to have some test hybrids ready by next fall. He’s ready to start hearing from local growers now, interested in developing a relationship for future test marketing.

“Enza Zaden is not, at this point, talking about when the payoff is for its money,” says Kazokas. “We hope, that within five or six years, we will start to develop something that can be commercially competitive, but sometimes it takes 10 years. There’s a certain amount of chance that plays into this. You just happen to make the right cross, and everything works well and then you’ve got something. And you go through this process very methodically, but you get a lucky hit. And sometimes, lucky hits will get you in three years, but if you’re unlucky, they take 10. The company is looking at this breeding station as a long-term investment, 10 or 20 years.”

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