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HONORING PLANT BREEDER

Frank Morton

Frank Morton of Shoulder to Shoulder Farm in Philomath, OR calls seeds “the best deal in nature: dense nutritional matter with a self-organizing program and energy array. For cheap.”

Without formal training, premeditation, or an economic plan, Morton accidentally became a seedsman. Beginning by selling salad greens to restaurants near and far, he and his wife Karen developed wild garden genepools to create a hyperdiversity of leaf forms, colors, textures and tastes. In the past four years they’ve introduced 22 varieties to the seed trade (not counting material offered only in their own catalog), including kales, orachs, mizunas, chrysanthemums, quinoas and lettuces. Their customers are commercial growers and small seed companies at the cutting edge like Shepherd’s, Garden City, Seeds of Change, Nichols, J.L. Hudson, Johnny’s–and Fedco. In 1996 we introduced their Red Orach (#3148), in 1997 their Blushed Butter Cos (#2836) and Blushed Butter Oaks (#2834) lettuce gene pools, and in 1998 we are featuring their White Russian Kale (#3385).

Morton’s proudest accomplishment is not any particular variety, but the acceptance of several of his genetically diverse gene pools into the garden seed trade. As he has written, “Exposing gardeners to the idea that the ‘genetically uncleansed’ can be exciting, beautiful, useful...is a small step toward accepting diversity as an asset.” He’ll feel doubly rewarded if some gardeners are moved to select their favorite forms from these gene pools so that “new varieties or landraces appear in diverse climates around the country as a result of this aesthetic impulse.”

Morton has moved beyond the preservation of heirlooms to the creation of composite populations formed by crossing several heirloom varieties. These may exhibit the same degree of vigor expressed by F-1 hybrids, but with a much broader base of genetic diversity. “Heirloom varieties are not the end of the line–they are the beginning of new lines.”

Far from being his whole life, plant breeding and selection is “just another tool in the Wild Garden Life.” Karen and Frank call their production area the Wild Garden. Their approach to sustainable agriculture is to return as many processes of production to the wild as they can. Beavers and coyotes, syrphid flies and wasps, weeds and wildlings are their teachers; integrating volunteer, wild and cultivated crops their technique; and an ecosystem of astonishing resilience and novelty their reward. They surround their terraced beds with sod pathways and leas where prairie and pasture grasses, clovers, wildflowers and naturalized wild greens commingle. They allow crops to bolt and flower to create continuous nectar, pollen, shelter and prey for beneficial species. Being part of an agroecological community is so much more satisfying and realistic to Morton than being its master. He points to the many ancient civilizations who thrived for centuries as subsistence farmers with increasingly sophisticated agricultural systems only to “disappear in a relative flash at what appeared to be the halcyon days of their civilization.” We should be asking why.

Now breeders now harvesters, now homeschoolers now photographers, strawbale builders, archers and Wild philosophers, the Mortons live as they farm–like a meadow.