WRITTEN BY PAULA BOCK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN LOK
The Seed Saver
Among the dozens of varieties of seeds Morton and his wife, Karen, grow are, from top left: 'Hopi Red Dye Amaranth' (used to make meal), Calendula (an edible flower), 'Flashy Butter Oak' (lettuce) and 'Flashy Trout Back' (another lettuce).
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."
Frank Morton says he wanted to create a farm that had the qualities of a natural ecosystem. "If you move over and let the wild things in," he says, "beneficial insects do pest control, genetic diversity does disease control."
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 parent, 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 catalogue as well as Fedco, Nichols, Territorial and Johnny's Selected Seeds.
Morton inspects a field of ‘Red Russian’ kale at his neighbor’s Gathering Together Farm. 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.
In the grand landscape of agribusiness, Wild Garden Seed is but a pebble. Most of the world's seeds are owned by a few huge transnationals 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 nonhybrid 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.
Karen Morton helped launch Wild Garden Seed company after declaring to her husband, Frank, that if they were going to keep all that seed around the house they were going to have to start selling some of it. Here, she weighs seed in preparation for shipping it.
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 amongst 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."
When winnowing in the breeze, Morton lets the seeds fall where they may and then watches to see what thrives. His garden is green with everything from fennel and chicory to kale and chervil.
A loaded mousetrap resting on a flat of seedlings serves as a reminder of just one of the many challenges the infant seeds face — from pests to fungus, floods to drought.
EVERY SEED TELLS a story. The tale of 'Flashy Butter Oak' intertwines with Frank Morton's life like a spiraling strand of DNA.
Morton grew up in West Virginia, the son of a coal-mine president who raised award-winning delphiniums. At 5, Morton poked watermelon seeds into the dirt because he wanted more watermelon than his mom would ever buy. Nothing sprouted except an idea. "You could grow some of what you ate," Morton says. "You didn't have to buy everything that brought you pleasure."
He took that thought to college, majoring in biology until it came time to dissect living worms; watching them suffer made him anxious. After graduating from Lewis and Clark College with a degree in child psychology, he set out with a girlfriend to work the land.
"For a lot of our generation, our environmental response is a response to seeing what happened when our parents were done with their jobs. It was a mess. We had birds dying. We had 'Silent Spring.' The World War II generation gave us a lot, and a lot of it was great, like interstate highways. But as we began to see the price of our comfort, the garbage and air pollution, we wanted to make amends."
For Morton, reparations involved exotic greens and next-day delivery by United Parcel Service. It was the early 1980s, the Age of Iceberg and Romaine. Several years earlier, on a pioneer organic farm in the Cascade foothills, environmental idealist Mark Musick had figured out that if he harvested wild salad greens, gently washed them and stored them in a moist paper bag inside a plastic bag, he could ship via UPS to gourmet restaurants such as Rosellini's Other Place, Ray's Boathouse and even Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, charging an astronomical $18 a pound, shelf-life one week.
Morton runs his hands through flat after flat of tomato seedlings because he believes that helps grow more robust plants with stronger stems. Also, he says, "it makes me feel connected to my work."
Don't confuse these greens with the bagged baby lettuces so popular today. Those snippets don't have nearly the taste or body. Musick generously shared his techniques with Morton, striking a gentleman's agreement not to market to the same restaurants.
Morton began "pushing the salad envelope" at Entheos, an "intentional farming community" on the Kitsap Peninsula. He scoured seed catalogues for every edible green ever eaten. He harvested dandelion, lambs quarters, pea tendrils, curlicue tips of vetch. He came up with great names: 'Pink Petiole' mustard and 'Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled' cress.
Chefs at the ultra-expensive Quilted Giraffe in New York and elegant L'Espalier in Boston were ecstatic.
"In those days it was a real innovation, vibrant greens like that," says Moncef Meddeb. As chef-owner of L'Espalier, Meddeb served the greens with foie gras and smoked salmon. "There was almost a little bit of a spiritual dimension to what they were doing, growing in a natural way and reviving all types of greens that obviously had existed all along but had sort of disappeared. They wanted a rustic, unspoiled life, all the fog rolling in."
To make salad for lunch, Frank Morton picks greens from his home "experimental breeding laboratory," where survival of the fittest, not genetic engineering, is the operating principle.
Yet more than misty lifestyle, it was ecological perspective. "My real motivation was to create a farm that had the qualities of a wild ecosystem," Morton says. "If you move over and let the wild things in, beneficial insects do pest control, genetic diversity does disease control. If you don't have all one species, it's hard to have an epidemic." (Think of the Irish potato famine, when the whole country grew mostly one crop, which was wiped out by one relentless fungus, leaving a million dead from starvation.)
"This is Frank the Philosopher speaking now: The more complex the food web in a garden or farm system, the more stable, the more alternatives for nutrient cycling. If you take elements out of the food web, eventually the web comes to pieces."
Morton began to look at flowers as ecological allies, as nectar, pollen and shelter for friendly bugs. He encouraged his greens to bolt, flower and go to seed. Naturally, that led to cross-pollination.
One day in 1983, in the middle of a thousand green lettuces, Morton spotted one red plant. "The common wisdom would have been to throw that plant away," he says. "Being a contrarian, I put it into a special place."
The accidental cross, a "red salad bowl" lettuce, had the flouncy leaves of its mother, 'Green Salad Bowl,' and the upright habit and red coloring of its accidental dad, a European heirloom romaine called 'Rogue'd Hiver.' After it flowered, Morton saved all 165 seeds, planted them the following year and was astounded to see a genetic rainbow spring up — in all, 23 kinds of lettuce from that one cross.
This second generation is when all the genes that have been brought together split apart. "I was being taught by these plants the process of plant breeding. So I'm thinking of making flashy colored greens that people want to put in their salad mix, but as I'm getting more mature, I think of more than looks. I think of disease resistance. When does it bolt? Does it get downy mildew?"
Morton keeps detailed notes on his seedlings. Most of what he knows about growing seed comes through personal observation and experimentation.
Morton's classical breeding technique is simple. He grows the plants side by side, smooshes the flowering heads together to mix the pollen, then grows the seeds from successive generations to stabilize the gene line.
More complex is the way he selects which plants to breed, based on a concept known as horizontal resistance. In the garden, this means hovering over a weedy cluster of, say, chicories, and searching for the healthiest plants amongst rotten stems and spotted leaves. The healthy plants were most likely able to shrug off disease because they have an array of genes protecting them, a sort of genetic combination-lock — horizontal resistance.
This is in contrast to the single-gene fix common in genetically engineered plants. The problem with a single-gene solution is that a pathogen will eventually mutate and get around the narrow blockade. In horizontal resistance, nature sets up a wider defense.
After sprouting the genetic rainbow, it took Morton six generations to stabilize the most promising lines, selecting for cold-hardiness, disease resistance and taste, as well as drop-dead good looks. There was 'Oaky Red Splash,' a large bronze head lettuce; 'Antares,' a bright red, extra frilly, upright oak leaf; 'Evergreen Lime,' an emerald romaine with the astounding characteristic of remaining sweet after bolting instead of turning bitter like most lettuces.
As part of their home-schooling, Morton brothers Kit, center, and Taj practice on their musical instruments at home rural Wren, Ore.
Growing seed is a family affair for the Mortons. At left, Kit, 12, joins his mother, Karen, and brother, Taj, 14, in tending seedlings at Gathering Together Farm.
To keep a line of seeds viable, you have to plant them every so often and save the next generation. 'Evergreen Lime' was lost to personal history as Morton split with his girlfriend, moved to Oregon, married photographer Karen Hayden and had two sons.
'Antares' and 'Oaky Red Splash' are still in the catalogue. The latter would become the great-grandparent of 'Flashy Butter Oak,' the baby lettuce sprouting on my desk.
THE DAY MONSANTO, the world's largest agricultural-biotechnology giant, announced it was acquiring Seminis, the world's largest vegetable-seed company, Frank Morton was cleaning seeds using some of the world's most primitive tools.
He was in the Seed Drying Facility, a funky shed he and Karen put up in one day 10 years ago using $40 worth of plastic pipe, plastic sheeting and black tape. He screened out leaves and sticks, then poured the seeds from one Rubbermaid container into another. Usually, the wind blows away dust and dried insect bodies, a seed-cleaning technique farmers have been using for 10,000 years. If there's no wind, or it's raining, Morton uses a window fan and a homemade tunnel of cardboard and duct tape. Sometimes, for seeds that are ball-bearing round, he'll race them down the Roundy Round, a steep spiral ramp that uses centripetal force to sort out grass, dirt and any seeds that aren't perfect orbs. The whirling seeds sound exactly like an aboriginal rainstick.
With a lullaby of swirling seeds in the background, Morton listened to the Seminis announcement on National Public Radio. For about $1.4 billion, Monsanto had agreed to purchase Seminis, thus acquiring rights to 3,500 fruit and vegetable seed varieties — including 75 percent of the tomato seeds and 85 percent of pepper seeds commercially available.
Monsanto says it has "no near-term plans" to bio-tinker with vegetable and fruit seeds, "but that could be an option if it fits with our future R&D priorities, and if it is determined that customer acceptance, product stewardship and the regulatory environment would indicate this to be a viable business opportunity."
Morton isn't reassured, saying genetically modified or GMO vegetables are "going to be at every salad bar within years, and we better start talking about it so everybody knows it." Since he's a lettuce guy, Morton had closely followed a mid-'90s Monsanto-Seminis collaboration to develop Roundup-resistant lettuce. The government issued permits for field tests, but the project seemed to go underground after public protest over other genetically modified foods.
"You can drink a lot of beer discussing the social and health implications of GMOs," Morton says. "Basically, the research hasn't been well done. Is it inherently unhealthy? No. Sixty percent of the U.S. soybean crop is GMO, and nobody's grown a third arm. Our objection isn't that it's going to cause mutations in humans."
The worry is about who will control the planet's germplasm. With all the agricultural consolidation, Morton says, fewer minds are making more decisions for more people. "Those minds are coming from a First World perspective, but they control what's available to farmers all over the planet. If they were only in charge of what happened in Illinois, that'd be one thing. But the same varieties get marketed in Brazil and India and China, places where there's not proper monitoring."
There are issues about pollen pollution and seed-handling accidents. New questions about allergies and antibiotic resistance marker genes. Old debates over the historic right of farmers to save their own seeds.
Before food, you must have seed. Who will control the world's seeds? Whom to trust with the planet's food supply?
In 2004, genetically modified seeds were planted on 200 million acres in 17 countries on six continents, a 20 percent increase over the previous year, according to the American Seed Trade Association. Biotech breeders and commercial farmers welcome the seeds because they initially increase yields and reduce pesticide use, a huge economic and environmental plus.
But many researchers say that's only temporary — until the pests and viruses mutate and get around the single-gene fix.
Nash Huber, a Sequim organic farmer known for Nash's Best Carrots, also trained as an organic chemist. The problem with farm chemicals, he says, is that it wasn't until decades later that people knew their ill effects. Huber is even more worried about genetically engineered seeds. "You can spread chemistry on the ground for 25 years, and most of the time you can get rid of the stuff in four or five years. When you change something that's alive and can reproduce itself, when you change life itself, you've got to be careful."
That afternoon, in the shed, Morton had another, oddly cheerful thought: the Seminis deal would actually help Wild Garden Seed. Seminis sells to 16,000 customers under dozens of brand names. Because organic farmers so dislike Monsanto, Morton figured they'd find his little lettuce company when searching for seed sources independent of the biotech giant.
Morton, left, and neighbor John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm share farming techniques as well as business profits and a philosophy: Concentrating control of seed in the hands of big business is not good for the long-term health of the planet's food supply.
"From a business standpoint," Morton grinned, "they stepped into my trap."
This sounds a bit strange coming from Morton, who, at 50, resembles a friendly overgrown elf who invites you to his straw-bale home to meet his family and share a salad when he stumbles upon you in the forest.
The straw-bale house is for real, and unfinished because Frank and Karen haven't had time to work on it between running their seed enterprise and home schooling sons Taj and Kit. The salad is harvested right before lunch by Karen, who fills a yogurt container with crisp chicory, meltingly soft chickweed tips, feathery fennel.
It's too early in the season for 'Flashy Butter Oak,' but after lunch, we look for the streaked lettuce's ancestral home, south of the driveway. The spot now hosts deep purple beets, withered corn stalks, ferny vetch, lacy chervil, corn salad, a big dandelion and sister stalks of golden chard.
For two hours I try to say goodbye, but Morton can't stop showing me things. Wild delphinium leaves reaching through the moss; Roemer's fescue, the rarest grass in Oregon; seeds of Kincaide lupine without which the rare Fender's Blue butterfly would go extinct.
He and Karen tell me about the year they made $56,000 in the salad business (too much money, too much hassle); how they grossed $80,000 last year; how they ruined the first crop of orach seed; how hard it was when they started the seed company to get anybody to share tips about how or where to sell. That was considered proprietary information, the way to conduct business.
For more "wild" information
Organic Seed Alliance,
Wild Garden Seed,
It struck me that Morton's philosophy is exactly the opposite. What are seeds if not information? During lunch, with no hesitation, he'd sketched out the formula for 'Flashy Butter Oak' alongside personal details of his life. The openness reminded me of a conversation I'd had with Musick, who had so freely shared his techniques with the Mortons. Bagged salads are now a $2 billion industry. Did Musick ever profit from that? I wondered. No money, Musick said, "but enduring friendships."
One of those friendships was with Frank Morton. Morton isn't making much money, either, but he has a lot of information in his head and a lot more growing in the garden, including a sweet little lettuce named 'Flashy Butter Oak.'
Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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