In early 1994 Stromme took an oblique look at the booming gardening market -- and the powerful economic forces behind it -- by examining the pages of a representative gardening magazine. The article is still wildly relevant. It's never been published. Until now.
THE COLOR OF MONEY
a decade of self-obsession that sent them jogging through the streets,
Americans are discovering a new area of self-expression: the land beneath
their feet. And with 61 million gardeners now digging into their wallets
and getting into gear, it's no wonder the growing business is a growth
industry in the United States.
is that much-vaunted Elm Research Institute quite what it seems. The ERI
is the same organization that in 1975 introduced a new fungicide, formulated
by DuPont, intended as preventative treatment for healthy elms against
Dutch Elm disease. An information packet sent out upon request informs
potential members that the $25 membership entitles a customer to a choice
between either the `American Liberty' elm or a free gallon of its Elm
Fungicide to apply to existing elms in one's vicinity. The ERI really
goes out of its way to help with the chemical. It'll even loan you a special
fungicide injection unit to do the job -- that is, if one isn't already
available locally through another ERI program: the Conscientious Injectors,
a volunteer corps organized by the institute to apply the chemical throughout
local neighborhoods. ERI's conspicuous appeals to patriotism and community
pride seem to be quite effective.
IT'S IN THE GENESAlong those same lines, it's hard to ignore the prominent reference to Burpee seed company president George Ball in the pages of Garden Design. The magazine does carry a full page Burpee advertisement in the same issue, but editorial coverage of advertisers is hardly a new or objectionable practice. Yet this advertiser is not quite like the others. In fact, in some environmental circles, giant seed companies like Burpee, in their promotion of proprietary seed and especially first-generation hybrids, represent nothing less than the big bad wolf. The charges? Monopolizing the gene pool, endangering food supplies, destroying culture, depleting water tables and just in general, despoiling the planet in the name of corporate profit.
Although the chairman of Burpee has argued, in a New York Times opinion piece a year ago, that Burpee is just responding to the demands of the marketplace for bigger and better, there is more than a grain of truth to the accusations.
Hybrid seed, developed with factory farms in mind, produces genetically identical plants with identical growing habits. Bred to respond to water and fertilizer, they generally produce bigger yields than traditional seed. (That watery flavor results is another story.) But unlike seeds of traditional plant varieties, seeds produced by hybrid plants are apt to revert, i.e. to express undesirable traits of their lineage, so that the gardener who wants the benefits of hybrid vigor is forced to return to the companies every year for supplies of fresh seed.
All this might not be so bad if two related phenomena hadn't occurred. One, an earlier generation accustomed to saving the seed of their most performing plants have died, and along with them, many of the pest-resistant and locally-adapted seeds passed down in families from generation to generation.
This permanent loss of diversity was aggravated by the increasing consolidation of seed companies starting in the early 1970's, when, not incidentally, plant patenting legislation was passed in the United States. Since then, it's been estimated nearly one thousand traditional, usually family-owned seed companies around the world have been bought or controlled by large petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies.
Driven by sophisticated marketing and research departments, these new operations are not interested in providing locally- adapted seed varieties with their inherently limited appeal. They drop them from their catalogues. Instead, they promote their own proprietary varieties, seeds that will perform in every region, under all conditions, as long as they are sufficiently watered and nursed with chemicals -- which, of course, these same companies are often in a position to supply. So the traditional seeds and their genes have been disappearing not only from the gardener's cellar, but from commercial outlets, too.
The National Seed Storage Laboratory (NSSL) in Fort Collins, Colorado might be assumed to pick up the slack, to preserve for humanity's sake those varieties deemed uncommercial. But the NSSL is run indirectly by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) whose priority is helping agribusiness. The NSSL makes little or no effort to save traditional American varieties, though they do manage to find the space to save propietary seed from commercial seed companies for use as legal samples in disputes.
The loss of plant genes in this manner is not just reserved to the United States. The same pattern is becoming the norm throughout the world. The process of loss is especially disturbing in the still variety-rich Third World. It all starts with proprietary seed used as a crowbar. With the introduction of the seed comes the sales of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, plus irrigation canals and dams, heavy equipment to work the new industrial-size farms, new banking structures to allow loans for next year's seed, and so on. In short, loss of indigenous culture, and, in its place, worldwide clones of United States agribusiness and industrial development. All thanks to a simple proprietary seed. Usually the same seed grown everywhere else on the planet. Which is why, for example, whereas once thirty thousand varieties of rice were sown around the world, it's now been estimated three-fourths of the world's rice land will soon be devoted to only ten varieties.
The implications of these developments are serious. As with the elm trees, uniformity invites epidemics. And at a time when the world's food supplies are disturbingly reliant on too few varieties of too few crops, back yard gardens may end up being more than a personal refuge. They might prove to be the repository of genes that can stave off famine. That is, if today's gardeners start saving seed of their own local varieties pollinated by the wind, birds and bees, as their ancestors did, instead of relying on the offerings by the giant seed companies.
W. Atlee Burpee and Co. in many respects reflects the trend in twentieth century seed companies. Founded in 1876 by W. Atlee Burpee, over the decades the company has proven particularly successful. Until 1970 the company was still owned and directed by the Burpee's themselves, a family with its roots in gardening. But in that year the company, so attractive to investors, was bought by General Foods. In 1979, it was sold again, this time to the multinational ITT. Burpee has changed hands twice since then and now sells more than $40 million worth of seeds and planting peripherals annually, with distribution in all fifty states and as many countries around the world. Yet over the years, between its promotion of exclusive varieties and its ownership by big business, Burpee has narrowed significantly its offerings to gardeners. The company's 1888 catalogue lists half again as many varieties as today's glossy mailer.
Its latest owner, George J. Ball, Inc., just a year ago fired the last remaining member of the founding family still working for the firm. Jonathan Burpee, the 51-year-old namesake of the famous `Big Boy' tomato variety, was given the boot by President George Ball as part of a corporate cost-cutting move. George Ball. The man quoted so benevolently in the pages of Garden Design.
The same George Ball whose son tops the magazine's new Editorial Advisory Board.
The same man/humanitarian who's so committed to helping people grow healthy food that he's willing to prove it in a magnanimous gesture to CARE (Cooperative for the Assistance of Relief Everywhere). CARE's mission hasn't changed since its inception fifty years ago, and it will sound familiar. It aims to help the needy of the Third World help themselves via improved water sanitation and farming programs that teach natives better gardening techniques and help them plant fruit and vegetables that provide families with better nutrition. The Burpee seed company has announced it will contribute to the organization ten percent of gross sales of four of its vegetable seeds, seeds that just happen to be Burpee exclusive hybrids.
Like the ones that will soon germinate in the soil of Mali, India and Ecuador? Maybe, maybe not. What is clear is that George Ball is ambitious and all over the map.
Americans may believe that they're creating their own personal refuge, and garden magazines may polish the perception with various creamy visions of gardens of Eden, but, like the unstoppable Dutch Elm disease, big business has infiltrated everyone's backyard. It turns out that having it your way is having it their way, too.
(c) Copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.