A small Pacific Northwest farmer is helping save the planet, one seed at a time
THE SEED SAVER
In plant propagation, our past and future are preserved… Two days ago, in an egg carton on my desk, I planted a dozen pointy brown seeds, each slightly bigger than a comma.
Already, one seed has spurted hairy white roots; soon, a pair of tender cotyledons will unfold, followed by tiny emerald leaves splashed with red. As the days stretch and warm, the leaves will swell into a curvaceous siren of a lettuce named ‘Flashy Butter Oak.’
This spring marks Flashy’s debut on the salad circuit. Crisp to the tooth, soft on the tongue, resistant to cold and sclerotinia stem rot, the ruffled lettuce is an exotic starlet — the product of millions of years of natural selection, more than 10,000 years of human selection and 22 years of careful observation and cross-pollination by classical plant breeder Frank Morton, a self-described “obsessive-compulsive seed head.”
Morton and his wife, Karen, founded Wild Garden Seed 11 years ago as a natural offshoot of their business growing salad greens for gourmet restaurants around the country. Actually, what happened is that Karen looked around their small house at all the seeds drying in the kitchen, spilling out of cupboards, stuffed in manila envelopes and stacked in plastic containers on every horizontal surface everywhere! and asked: Why do we need to grow so many seeds?
Frank: Because they’re EVOLVING!
Karen: Well, if you’re going to keep saving seeds, we’re going to have to start selling some.
It was an attempt to control household clutter. It was a matter of caring for the planet’s germplasm — genetic material — perhaps the most important task in the world.
Wild Garden Seed is a small, family-run seed company on a patch of native prairie in Oregon’s coastal range foothills. Last year, in partnership with a neighboring family farm, the Mortons produced and sold 4,700 pounds of seed — 40 or so varieties of organic amaranth, chard, endive, epazote, fennel, kale, orach, mustard, mint, muskmelon and, of course, the heirloom and originally bred lettuces. The seeds are all open-pollinated, which means the plants’ children and grandchildren will be like the parents, so their seed can be saved and replanted through generations. Popular among market growers and home gardeners, the seeds are distributed through the company’s own catalog as well as Fedco, Nichols, Territorial and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
In the grand landscape of agribusiness, Wild Garden Seed is but a pebble. Last year, the Mortons and their neighbor produced 4,700 pounds of seed — 40 or so varieties — for sale. The business is but a pebble in the agricultural industry, which is dominated by transnational companies that control most of the world’s seeds.
because during the past two decades, local seed partnerships have been bought out by regional seed businesses, then national corporations, and now, biotech, agrichemical, and pharmaceutical giants. “No other resource has so quickly shifted from the public to private hands, ” says Matthew Dillon, head of the Organic Seed Alliance based in Port Townsend.
In 1984, 230 companies were selling non-hybrid vegetable seeds, according to an inventory of the U.S. and Canada by Seed Savers Exchange. Three years later, almost a quarter of those companies had folded or sold out. Consolidations continue. At each step, the larger companies drop varieties of open-pollinated seeds to focus on hybrids and genetically engineered seeds that serve a broader range of commercial growers and are thus more profitable.
Using gene guns, electron microscopes, petri dishes and inbred lines, corporate breeders create plants that are bigger (or smaller), rounder, redder, that transport well, ripen all on the same day, withstand cold, resist disease, tolerate herbicides such as Roundup (so farmers can spray their fields to kill weeds without killing the crop) and generate pesticide in every cell (so a bug will keel over if it even nibbles a leaf).
The wonder seeds possess myriad charms; but just like in a fairy tale, the charms last only for one season. Seeds of hybrid and genetically engineered plants can’t be saved and planted next year. The former produce unpredictable offspring; the latter, lawsuits.
What’s more, most wonder seeds are bred to be attractive only to the rich princes of agriculture, large-scale commercial growers in, say, California. Yet what grows best in the Salinas Valley might rot in the Skagit or wither in India. That wouldn’t have been a problem when farmers saved their own seeds, or bought locally, because varieties had evolved to suit the microclimate. Increasingly, though, farmers purchase their seeds from distant transnationals because it’s cheap. Still, there’s a price: No local seeds? No local roots. No control.
“Every bit of germplasm is uniquely adapted due to its history of selection,” Morton says. “That history can’t really be re-created easily . . . The varieties that exist today, they’re like books that tell the story of producing food for humans under different sets of conditions . . . Nobody would say: Why should we keep a bunch of old books around? That’s what’s happening with seeds.”
Not in Morton’s garden. Here, everything grows among everything else, and to the untrained eye, much of it looks like weeds. Valuable specimens appear to be sprinkled randomly — a peppermint-striped chicory by the solar panel, ultra-cold-hardy kales near the badminton net, a rosette of crimson lettuce blooming in a driveway rut.
The total area of the “experimental breeding nursery” is surprisingly small, less than three tennis courts. Wild Garden Seed’s power is not in size but in time. Through season after season of frost, fungi, and flood, Morton watches which plants thrive.
“He lets the plants tell him which way they want to go for their evolutionary adaptation,” says geneticist John Navazio, who teaches at The Evergreen State College and directs research for the Organic Seed Alliance. “This is what makes Frank Morton a genius.”
At the moment, Morton looks like a bee. He darts from hillock to divot, making mental notes on which specimen he wants to save and cross, his once-white sneakers the color of earth. He bends to examine chard, some of which looks awful.
“See here?” he says, pointing to a beauty among the battered and the bolted. “This thing was buried in sick plants, but it’s not sick!” He pulls out the diseased plants, leaving a trio of the healthiest. “Weeding the uglies,” he says. Breeding á la survival of the fittest. “Not pampered genetics.”