Watermelon Breeder Brings Green Thumb to Kern County

By Lindsey Brackett, KEDF/KEDC Intern

One of Kern County’s newest residents, Elizabeth Straley, is one to thank for filling grocery stores with summer’s most popular snack… watermelon! As a local watermelon breeder at United Genetics Seeds, Elizabeth’s daily routine at work is different from a typical day in the office. From the earliest stages of planting seeds and tending the fruit, all the way through harvest season, Elizabeth’s job is extremely hands on. This however, is not where she had planned on ending up when it comes to both her career and her location.

Today, Elizabeth is settling into her new hometown and she is clearly passionate about her career.   Watermelon breeding requires a lot of care and attention. Elizabeth explains that, unlike most fruit plants, watermelon seeds need to be watered a certain way so they are able to germinate well in the ground.  She said, “Most people start seedlings in trays and then transplant them when they are big enough–in roughly two weeks.”  To avoid any issues in the growing process, Elizabeth starts by hand-pollinating one flower per plant in order for the energy to focus on just the one fruit being grown.  The process takes a lot of time and effort.  Right before harvest, it is then Elizabeth’s job to make sure the fruit is the right size, shape, and color so they can be shipped to not only our local grocery stores but also around the world.

Before moving to Kern County in early June, Elizabeth called Kellogg’s Cereal City, Battle Creek, Michigan her home. Growing up, no one ever intentionally introduced Elizabeth to agriculture as a career. Her mom was a stay-at-home mom and her dad was a pharmacist.  From a young age, though, she had always been intrigued with gardening and growing plants of her own.  After high school, Elizabeth attended Michigan State University studying Environmental Biology, never planning on going to graduate school.  In today’s workplace, especially in plant sciences, it is much more difficult to secure a job without a Master’s Degree. Knowing this, Elizabeth mustered up the courage to attend the University of Wisconsin and further her education, despite her initial doubts.  Elizabeth earned her Master’s Degree in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics, something she considers her biggest accomplishment.

As she approached graduation, a new Elizabeth was back on the job hunt, pursuing any opportunity she could take.  While looking online, she found a job opening with United Genetics Seeds in Kern County and was able to secure the position.  The company wanted Elizabeth to start her new job as soon as possible. She said “On June 1st, I went to school and dropped off my thesis, picked up my brother, left for California… and we were here by June 8th, moving my stuff into my new apartment.”

While in school and in between internships, Elizabeth says that a large majority of her professors, lab techs and supervisors were women.  In her new job at United Genetics Seeds, she has met two women that are breeders and some women in the sales department, but it seems to be heavily populated with male coworkers.  This doesn’t worry Elizabeth as she has had many positive experiences working and studying in STEM with both men and women.  Although she has only been in Kern County for a short time, she has already shown interest in giving back to the community and mentoring young girls to pursue STEM hobbies and career opportunities. Elizabeth is excited to work with all of her new co-workers at United Genetics Seeds to help bring the best watermelons to not only local grocery stores but also stores in Italy, Spain, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico.

Next time you’re shopping for a nice, refreshing summer treat, check the sticker to see if Elizabeth and everyone at United Genetics Seeds are the people to thank!

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