The experimental fields of the Mount Vernon Northwestern Research & Extension Center are adorned this summer with Japanese melons that could one day fill the displays of grocery stores across the western United States.
Eight varieties of Higo Green melon — a variation traditionally unique to Japan — are being evaluated at the Washington State University facility for their ability to grow in the Northwest as well as for their sweetness and texture compared to the market-standard variety of cantaloupe. This year’s melon trials follow up on experiments done last summer in which eight melon varieties were compared by size, texture, color and taste.
After its flagship Higo Green melons came out on top in the eyes of tasters last summer, the Matsui Seed Co. Ltd. opted to further understand how long it would take for fruit of the new varieties to reach maturity in the northwest region of the U.S. and how they compare to other melons commonly found in grocery stores along the West Coast.
The Matsui Seed Co. didn’t just stumble upon WSU as a partner for these trials. Its president, Kunihiko Matsui, is a WSU graduate who was passionate about working with his alma mater to help introduce new varieties to the U.S.
“I really appreciate my time at Washington State University, as well as the experiences I had in Washington State and the United States,” Matsui said. “Without those experiences, I wouldn’t be here today.”
From banker to melon breeder
Matsui was born into a family with nine generations of agriculture experience in Japan’s Nara Prefecture. His grandfather, Kiichi Matsui, started the Matsui Seed Co. in 1952, driven by a passion for helping his country rebuild after World War II.
While growing up, Matsui was often asked to review different varieties of melon being grown by his family, an experience that continues to pay dividends now as the president of the company, he said. It’s now Matsui’s children delivering their assessments of his company’s newest melon varieties.
Prior to coming to the Palouse, Matsui graduated from Japan’s Chuo University with a degree in business. But after four years working at a major bank, he knew he wanted to do something different with his life.
“When I was at the bank, some of my customers were fresh food delivery companies who distributed, watermelons and melons created by my father,” Matsui said. “I realized that this was my father’s product and our family’s business was producing the seeds for new varieties of melon. Just as my father transferred these new varieties through selling seeds to distributors, my father’s thoughts and philosophies were transferred to me, and I understand just what an amazing job this could be.”
Matsui first traveled to Washington after joining an international program during his time as a university student, staying for one month with a host family in Snohomish County. Impressed by the weather and the people he encountered as well as WSU’s reputation as an agriculture school, Matsui left his job and traveled to the U.S.
In the fall of 2002, Matsui enrolled at WSU’s Intensive American Language Center. He opted to study crop sciences and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 2005. Steve Ullrich, an emeritus Crop and Soil Sciences faculty member, was instrumental in Matsui’s studies and path forward after graduation.
“Just before I left the U.S., he told me that I should study from my father because even though I have the basic breeding knowledge, there is more to learn from my father,” Matsui said.
The path back to Washington
Upon returning to Japan, Matsui began working closely with his father as part of the seed company. The next several years were spent gaining insight on the complex and lengthy breeding process for different melon varieties. In Japan, melons are grown twice a year. Initially, Matsui said his knowledge of breeding better melons was lacking, and amounted to little more than growing and harvesting melons before cutting them up and tasting them.
Eventually, Matsui’s father introduced him to a product development expert, who gave him clues on the key components to breeding better melons. Once he understood the balance of genetic and environmental factors, his eyes were opened to the possibilities.
While in the United States, Matsui would often visit local farmer’s markets across the Palouse. The local farmer’s penchant for growing different kinds of crops not as commonly available in big grocery stores demonstrated that there was a wiliness among growers to try new things. Additionally, Matsui came to believe that American consumers are quite eager to try new things if they are available to them.
These factors brought Matsui to pursue a path to bringing Japanese melon varieties to the United States. When it came to finding a partner to find out which types of melons grew best, he turned to his alma mater.
“Washington is very close to the climate of northern japan, a similar climate,” Matsui said. “I know that there are places that are warmer and therefore better to grow, but I didn’t have connections in those places like I did in Washington and I wanted to use the connections I had to WSU.”
Carol Miles, director of the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (WSU NWREC), recalls telling Matsui about the challenges posed by doing melon trials at the Mount Vernon site.
“The soil is quite a bit heavier here than eastern Washington, spring rains can cause planting delays, and soil and air temperatures are cooler, leading to melons taking much longer to reach maturity,” Miles said.
Despite these challenges, Matsui wanted to press ahead, impressing Miles with his affinity toward the university.
Srijana Shrestha is a Ph.D. gradate research assistant with Miles at WSU NWREC and leads the trials involving Matsui melons. On approximately a tenth of an acre, melon trials are conducted during the summer months, with last year being the first to include seeds provided by Matsui’s company.
While Matsui’s melons took roughly 20% longer to reach maturity than Athena cantaloupe, a market standard, when they did, the resulting fruit were the highest rated by taste testers for their firmness and sweetness. To generate greater reliability in the results and drill down further into which type of melon is best for the western U.S., Shrestha is repeating the trials again this year with eight varieties of Higo Green melons, testing them against a new market standard variety, Infinite Gold.
“Matsui wants to test their best varieties for the U.S. because the plants perform very differently in Japan, and so it’s a matter of understanding how they grow here and how are they compare to varieties standard to American consumers,” Shrestha said.
Once Americans taste the unique melon varieties of Japan, Matsui is confident they’ll come back for more.
“Even though our varieties aren’t common commercially in the U.S., I believe the taste will be accepted in the U.S.,” Matsui said, “The taste will break through the market.” —