When Nassif Burkhuch graduated from the American University in Beirut in 1979 he could not have imagined that he would spend most of the next 30 years in the Imperial Valley.
But it wasn’t the great weather nor the desire to get to the land of opportunity that brought him to the California desert. It was more of a typical agricultural industry story of being a non-family member in a family company, and being offered another opportunity. “Harry Neuman offered me a job. That’s why I am here. Lebanon’s climate is much closer to Northern California and the California coast. I would have much rather gone to work for Petoseed (in Ventura County),” he admits freely, speaking of that old-line company that was thriving as an independent seed company 30 years ago.
After graduating with a masters degree in agronomy, Burkhuch started working for a Lebanon-based agricultural products distributor in his native land that handled seeds among other items. He worked in the seed department where the company represented several different seed companies, mostly from Europe, in fertile Northern Africa, which includes Lebanon, Africa, Egypt and several other countries with rich agricultural production. After working there for a couple of years and with his parents and brother already having emigrated to the United States, Burkhuch’s boss encouraged him to visit his family and check out the U.S. seed industry. “At the time, we weren’t representing any U.S. seed companies and my boss wanted more business.”
After seeing his relatives on the East Coast, Burkhuch made the trip across country to California and traveled the length of the state visiting seed companies and requesting a dealership for his Lebanon employer. Eventually he ended up in San Diego and headed east to the Imperial Valley where he met Harry Neuman of Neuman Seed Company in El Centro. Throughout his trip, the multi-lingual Burkhuch was offered several jobs and he did secure a dealership for his firm.
“When I got back to Lebanon, I asked my boss what my future was at the company. He told me I was head of the seed department and that’s where I would be five years from now as well.”
It was a family-owned company with two brothers running the firm and two more in college. Burkhuch was told future leadership positions would go to family members not an outsider. After finding and training his replacement, which was the custom in Lebanon, he packed up his bags, moved to the United States and tried to get a job with one of the seed companies he had seen on his trip. Many of them offered him jobs but not in the United States. Harry Neuman, however, was willing to hire him and sponsor him as he worked his way through the U.S. immigration bureaucracy to secure his right to work and live in the country.
Burkhuch worked for Neuman Seed from the early ‘80s through the mid-90s. Along the way the company was sold to a French firm and Harry Neuman passed away. In 1997, the French owners decided to liquidate the assets and began to look for a buyer. Eventually Burkhuch and his partner, Clark Sarchet, found the financing to purchase the firm themselves.
Burkhuch said at that same time several other executives moved in other directions with parts of the company so the resulting Golden Valley Seed wasn’t as big as the original Neuman Seed Company but it was a going concern in its own right.
“We stuck with two breeders and continued the company focusing mainly in cucurbits, onions, tomatoes and peppers,” he said.
To this day, those items make up the core of the breeding program though Golden Valley Seed also buys and sells breeding material with other seed companies to give it a larger product list, which it sells through distributors. “About 50 percent of our business is bulk business with other seed companies,” Burkhuch said. “We sell the seed (we produce) internationally to many other companies who package it in their own brands and sell it to growers.”
Typically the seed is referred to as “Golden Valley” seed so it does retain the firm’s identity. Burkhuch said Golden Valley has created some very good varieties over the years. In fact, he said, “we were the first to have the mini seedless watermelons. We didn’t have the money to market it like the other company. But to this day, I have many growers that say my mini watermelon is better. It’s firmer, it tastes better and it has a better crunch. And the other mini watermelons don’t ship as well as mine. I just can’t do the big marketing campaign.”
He said Golden Valley Seed was also one of the first companies to produce a grape tomato variety and it continues to do great work with specialty melons.
The company also sells seed direct in the export market, through distributors, to growers all over the world, with a good deal of business from the North Africa area where Burkhuch grew up. He believes U.S. growers should start to look at that area for expansion. He said North Africa is an excellent location in which to produce crops for the lucrative European market. While many are scared away from the area because of the perception of political unrest, Burkhuch said it is fertile land and believes U.S. growers and shippers should explore the opportunities.
In fact, he said his business would be better in that area if it wasn’t for U.S. trade restrictions. For example, he said Iranian growers need seed but U.S. companies can’t sell to them. While the trade sanctions are also supported by European countries, Burkhuch said somehow European seed is finding its way to those growers. “The Dutch, the French, the Italians. Their seed is ending up there.”
He said the same is true in our own hemisphere, where U.S. seed companies are not allowed to sell to Cuba. “I don’t do it but I know others who ship the seed to Mexico and then its gets into Cuba.”
Burkhuch hates the idea that political issues get in the way of selling seed to farmers no matter where they are. “It’s just stupid politics,” he says.
But much of North Africa is not embroiled in political unrest, he said, citing Morocco as an example, and Burkhuch said there are great opportunities there for international expansion.
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