Connecticut NOFA Keynote

CR Lawn, March 3, 2001

Thank you. It’s good to be back in balmy Connecticut. I say “balmy” because it was 12 below zero yesterday morning in central Maine and we still have 3 feet of snow. I say “back” because I have a little history here that goes back to the late sixties when I attended law School in New Haven and worked for an underground newspaper called View from the Bottom for which I achieved a certain small notoriety. I couldn’t resist bringing back a souvenir to celebrate this occasion. Anyone here know what this is? [Holds up tear gas canister. No one can identify it.] During this time Black Panther Party leaders Bobby Seale and Erica Huggins were arrested and put on trial for their lives. Thirty years ago in May there was a huge demonstration on their behalf, store windows were boarded up all over New Haven, the National Guard was called out, massive violence was feared though never materialized and this is one of the tear gas canisters used by zealous police that weekend. I was part of the successful class-action lawsuit against the New Haven Police Department and the FBI that resulted in a multimillion dollar out-of-court settlement to 1,500 plaintiffs who were illegally wiretapped. Living proof that you can fight the system and occasionally even win!

So I am no stranger to dark times and struggles. Today we live in another dark time. Having failed to impeach President Clinton for sexual activity, the Republicans usurped our power by installing their president in a bloodless coup d’etat. He sits in the White House shamelessly pushing his right-wing agenda with no voter mandate whatsoever. He is there because five Supreme Court justices appointed by presidents from his party, so-called conservative strict constructionists, broke down the carefully constructed edifice of separation of powers developed by our nation’s founders and intervened where they had no business, overturning a legitimate decision of the Florida Supreme Court and deciding the votes would not be counted. “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.” Can anyone here guess who said that? [Someone in the audience correctly attributed it to Josef Stalin.]

We have not only lost the power to control whom we elect president. We are also in danger of losing control over the painstaking work we have done over the last thirty years to build an alternative agriculture. Now the very standards by which we define the term by which our movement is known: “organic”, are being held hostage by the United States Department of Agriculture, an agency which has never been the slightest friend of organics. MOFGA Executive Director Russell Libby describes seeing USDA bureaucrats in Washington who’d been there decades and not gotten out to so much as see a farm or garden during their whole tenure. I thought he was exaggerating until I read about the rule that would require compost piles to be turned five times within a period of fifteen days! The people who wrote that rule obviously have about as much hands-on connection with farming as the judges who found anything in the constitution that permitted them to stop the counting of votes have with democracy!

Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture, in announcing the new standards, said “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” It’s about marketing. It’s about money. It is about the rich getting richer and the rest of us paying more for bureaucracy. It is about making standards so the big farmers can capture international markets. Why is the USDA suddenly so interested in organics after disdaining it for years? Because organics was gaining too much market share. I still remember the late Professor Fleming James, at our first meeting of Civil Procedure class at law school. “What’s the law about? It’s about ‘who pays!’” Being children of the sixties and knowing that James had made his fame as counsel for New Haven Railroad, we were all turned off. But, whether we liked it or not, James was being totally candid.

I’d guess most of us here did not vote for Mr. Bush and most of us would certainly not vote for the new organic standards. So what is to be done? We must remember where we have been, think about where we want to go, and why we are here today. Some in Maine have mistakenly equated MOFGA’s success as an organization with the numbers of certified growers. But our organizations are so much more than that. Many of our supporters have never gotten certified, and now probably more will choose not to. I’ve been growing since 1973 and a MOFGA member since 1975 and I got certified for only one year in all that time. In an ideal world, we don’t even need certification. Because we would be marketing locally to people who already know us and know our reputation. We are not about exporting food and I hope we are not about shipping it long distances. We should be building an infrastructure that reduces the distance our food travels, that increases its freshness, that, in the words of Russell Libby, promotes food with a face, a place and a taste. We should be getting the word out about why organic food is more wholesome, more nutritious, more tasty and more healthful. And we’ve done a pretty darn good job of it over the past twenty years without the benefit of national standards and without much help from the USDA! That’s how we’ve built up that market share. And so, if we go about continuing to do what we’ve been doing, if we make the profound connections about soil, culture, food and health, the power of truth, the power of common sense and the power of superior taste will prevail!

In the final analysis, the USDA can take away the use of our word “organic” but they cannot take away the foundations and structure of our movement unless we allow them to. And if we do a good job of educating, people are smart enough to know that we’re a whole lot more than a name or a label. One of our Maine sheep farmers suggested that from now on we use the word “Morganic.” I loved it because it makes at least four very good puns.

I come today to talk to you about one of the very foundations of good food: the seed. Today we stand in relation to the seed much as we stood in relation to the soil a generation ago. We have spent the last thirty years paying much attention to improving our soil and improving our culture, but what have we done for the seed? Very little. And while we largely ignored the seed, we lost awareness and lost control of where it is coming from, just as we lost control of our polity, and for many of the same reasons.

Russell Libby, who likes to hunt for old agricultural publications in second hand bookstores recently shared with me a couple of the treasures he’d unearthed. This [holds it up] is a Maine Extension Bulletin dated December 1953, entitled Vegetable Varieties for the Maine Home Garden. In it I found Northland, an extra early sweet corn featuring 8 to 10 rows of golden kernels of good quality developed by the Maine experiment station for northern and eastern Maine, Highmoor a scab-resistant slicing cuke and Maine No. 2, a scab-resistant pickler, both developed by the Maine Experiment Station. Caserta, a summer squash with dwarf bush plants was developed at the University of Connecticut. This one is a little booklet from June 1957 called Breeding New Vegetable Varieties by famous University of New Hampshire breeders Albert F. Yeager and Elwyn M. Meader. In it they describe their work in breeding Greencrop, which won an All-America award in 1957 and is still offered by Fedco and many other seed companies. They tell of trying to produce a wax pole bean with the quality of Kentucky Wonder. They make my mouth water with New Hampshire Giant Bean, at 10-11 inches long which “may be the largest podded stringless green bush bean having white seeds that is available in the seed trade. Its greatest appeal is to home gardeners.” Makes me want to search to see if it still exists. They tell of developing the Sweetheart Beet, a cross between Detroit Dark Red beet and U.S. #225 sugar beet that one of our customers has recommended but I can’t find a commercial source, and one seed saver from Arkansas may be the only person keeping it from becoming extinct! And way back then they were working on developing a purple podded shell pea, a red brussels sprout (Rubine, the only one on the market now has too long a season for northern New England) and a Table-Queen type bush acorn squash with naked edible seeds, all projects with obvious appeal for home gardeners and small market growers. My point is that seed breeding was a regular feature at the land grant universities—each had its own program adapted to its area of the country. Collegiality and cooperation among plant breeders was regularly practiced, material was shared freely. Today, New Hampshire still has such a program. Dr. Brent Loy has bred several varieties Fedco sells including Passport and Earliqueen melons and Snack Jack edible-seeded pumpkin. But Loy is one of only a handful of conventional plant breeders still remaining in the country. Maine’s program is long-gone. Anyone know if UConn is still doing any breeding work? [“Very little is being done,” was the response from someone in the audience.]

From Royalty Purple Pod bean to Reliance Peach, Meader developed scores of varieties for the garden and orchard. Many came after he retired from the University of New Hampshire in 1966, yet he never sought patents or royalties for his creations and never made a penny on them. “I was working for the taxpayer he said, and the results of my work belonged to them.” A deeply religious Quaker, Meader called his work “his payment for his space on the planet.” Yes, a man of character and a character, too. He eschewed the chain saw, cutting his six cords of firewood annually with a bow and cross-cut saw which he filed himself. He encouraged the wave of homesteaders, but disdained the television, adding curtly, “If you can’t make it without bringing along your tv, you’d better forget the whole thing.” He allowed that naming the Meader persimmon after him was appropriate because “unripe persimmons can be puckery.” At one point in the 1950s Meader refused to serve on any university committees asserting that “a committee of one works best.” Yet his collaboration with Yeager produced amazing results and his cooperation with plant breeders throughout the world was legendary. Meader never got his PhD (though he was awarded one emeritus) and never taught formal classes, insisting that he had been hired strictly as a plant breeder, yet he entertained streams of visitors at his farm and a visit was worth at least a half day because he had so much to share. Fedco Trees still works closely with his son John.

In 1980 the US Supreme Court ruled in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty that genetically engineered organisms constitute patentable matter and awarded a scientist a utility patent for an engineered microbe. A utility patent is incredibly broad: it protects the variety, the specific genes associated with the variety and the mechanism used to produce the variety. The decision ushered in a devastating change in the nature of crop research by providing a commercial basis for the biotechnology revolution in agriculture. Collegiality and free exchange among plant breeders gave way to secrecy and complex licensing and patenting agreements. Intellectual property rights had a chilling effect on the free exchange of information and germplasm. The Technology Transfer Act of 1986 enabled the USDA to collude with giant corporations in private profit-making enterprises, such as the infamous Terminator Technology. Yeager and Meader were breeding primarily for home gardeners and small growers. Almost no one breeds for them any more. Classical plant breeding has been replaced by genetic engineering.

Free exchange of seed among farmers has been the basis of maintaining biodiversity and seed security. Free exchange of ideas and knowledge of culture and heritage went along with free exchange of seeds. Over 10,000 years farmers in India evolved 30,000 varieties of rice. By 1992 only twelve covered 75% of the rice fields in India and just one accounted for 65% of the paddy land in Southeast Asia.

The high cost of research in biotechnology has driven a spate of mergers, consolidating the seed industry into a narrow oligopoly. Today just five companies control 75% of the global vegetable seed trade, and one of these, Seminis, 40% of the North American market. Seminis is in serious economic trouble, bloated from its inability to digest the results of its mergermania. It has been laying off plant breeders and recently dropped 2,000 varieties from its product line—one fourth of its entire line!

The foundation of the world’s food supply is almost as heavily concentrated as the seed industry. Of 7000 plants farmed or used for food, just 30 species provide 90% of the world’s caloric intake, only eight make up 75% of what we eat and just four most of the calories and proteins consumed by the world population through global trade. 97% of vegetable and fruit varieties available in the US in 1900 were lost in the twentieth century. Genetic diversity is evaporating twice as fast as the tropical rainforest! As corporations claim intellectual property rights on seeds, they are hijacking centuries of collective innovation by farmers and peasants, who are in turn reacting angrily to lock up their germplasm storehouses before the corporate exploiters steal them blind. The bottom has literally fallen out of the scientific exchange of germplasm according to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, a Rome-based body charged with conserving crop germplasm and encouraging its development.

Biotechnology is even more heavily concentrated. In 1999 just 5 companies had a 99% market share with 80% belonging to Monsanto and 8% to Aventis, architects of the Starlink corn scandal. 98% of the acreage was in just three countries and almost all was concentrated on just 4 crops. 73% of the crops were modified for herbicide tolerance, virtually a continuation of chemical agriculture monoculture, 22% incorporated insect resistance, and 5% were stacked between these two traits. All other traits accounted for less than 1%. The biotech culture is itself totally lacking in biodiversity, from the lack of diversity in cultural traits to a lack of diversity in who shares the market to an incredible lack of diversity in the range of cultivars being modified and where they are being grown!

We should be concerned about this lack of diversity because it already affects us as farmers and will even more in the future. Many of the varieties in the Fedco catalog have only one source. We have over the years seen one variety after another disappear from the trade when it was dropped by its only source—from Bravo broccoli to Southport Red onion to Platinum Lady sweet corn. We are excessively dependent on a few huge suppliers. Fedco has purchased 45 different varieties so far this year from Seminis, and 17 more from biotech giant Novartis, now evolved into Syngenta. Most of these are one-source varieties, mostly hybrids which are proprietary secrets not accessible to anyone else. As the conglomerates become more deeply committed to genetically engineered varieties, and believe me, that’s where they are headed, they will drop more and more of the varieties we depend on, or else alter them so they are available only genetically modified. Even if they keep our commercial mainstays, we at Fedco and other retail seed companies are going to be increasingly confronted by mercenary dealer contracts such as the one I’m reading from now: “The buyer agrees not to use the products for multiplication, propagation or reproduction purposes. Buyer agrees not to resell the products unless this restriction is imposed on any subsequent buyer of the products.” In other words, we are not allowed to save or multiply or sell seed of the variety and we are not allowed to sell to any of our customers who want to save or multiply or sell the seed. Fedco might agree to the first clause, we would never agree to the second because we believe that you should be able to do what you want with the seed we sell. If you want to save it and multiply it, more power to you!

As fellow Mainer Will Bonsall so eloquently pointed out in his keynote speech to the New York NOFA Conference in January a year ago, some things you just don’t get any kicks from having anybody else do for you. And as an example, he mentioned sex. Now seeds are all about sex, the sexual reproduction of plants. Will was partially joking, but I’ve thought a lot about what he said and he is right. When I came to Maine 28 years ago I couldn’t hammer an eightpenny nail in straight and yet I built my own 22x20 hippie cabin. I am not very patient with things like carpentry which require extreme precision, and at times it was very difficult if not excruciating, and I frequently used language that I would not repeat before you today, yet I wouldn’t trade the experience of building my own house for anything. Certain basic necessities like food, sex and shelter are so fundamental that we cannot be satisfied to leave them to others. Food is at the center of our health, and our cultural and spiritual relationships. We speak of breaking bread. It is sacred to many of us. More than the satisfaction of providing for our own needs, an even more compelling reason why we must regain control over the food we eat is the same reason why we have local school boards. My mother, who served on her school board for years used to say that schools and education were too important to be left to administrators and professional educators. So I say that food is too important to be left in the hands of giant corporations. If we continue to allow them to control our food supply we cannot be a free people. NOFA stands as an organization of state food boards and we need local food boards just as we need local school boards.

Bonsall, for all his joking, stood at the crux of an even more fundamental truth. Plants are sentient beings, sexual beings. The fundamental difference between classical plant breeders and genetic engineers is that classical breeders work holistically with the sexual reproduction of plants. Genetic engineers bypass the sexuality of plants by mechanically transferring isolated genes from organisms (often unrelated organisms) to host plants. In so doing they create life forms that would never occur in nature without human intervention. We would call a human being mating with a bull monstrous. Is a fish gene inserted into a tomato any less monstrous? Isn’t it a form of ultimate arrogance to believe we can improve on nature’s designs? To risk a cooperative relationship with plants that has evolved for thousands and thousands of years without which we could not survive? These experiments are not confined to any laboratory. These are biological experiments without boundaries, time limits or controls. They create life forms which reproduce, which cannot be recalled, restricted or controlled. The whole Earth is their laboratory.

Yet many of these genetic engineers would call themselves conservatives, just as do many of the politicians who have railroaded the technology through without any safeguards, just as do the judges who played fast and loose with our constitution. But now we must reclaim the word conservative, take it back from those who long ago hijacked it and restore it to its true place. To understand what conservative is we must first understand what it is not. It is not about the unfettered opportunity for the few to amass wealth at the expense of the many. It is not about the unchecked exploitation of natural resource for the benefit of the few at the expense of future generations, and it is not about preaching “family values” while pursuing policies which tear families all over the world asunder. It is not about conducting unprecedented biological experiments with our own citizens as the primary guinea pigs, it is not about the private ownership and patenting of genes that rightfully belong to the commons of all living beings, and it is not about good food for those who can afford it and junk food for all the rest. It is about the conservation of precious resources, the respect of cherished values and the preservation of our genetic inheritance. Who could be more conservative than the organic farmer who faithfully builds his/her soil, patiently learns and practices his/her craft and carefully intertwines matter and spirit into a whole enterprise with integrity? Who is more conservative than the savers and preservers of the best open-pollinated seed varieties, strains which are the products of ten thousand years of observation and crop improvement? We must take back our heritage while we still have time. And it all begins with the seed.

And it begins with language. In popular language going to seed has a negative connotation and a seedy character is someone who has seen better days. Yet the goal of most living beings is to reproduce sexually. It is a plant’s destiny to go to seed, to complete the cycle of death and rebirth. And once you overcome your cultural prejudices nothing is so beautiful as a garden of plants which you have allowed to go to seed. Don’t take my word for it. Try it. I hope it starts you on the adventure to become a seed saver. If we want to free ourselves from the tyranny of the giant corporations we must become seed savers. Start by beginning to free yourselves from the hybrid habit. Hybrid plants do not reproduce true to type. Their seeds will not reproduce the same variety. Hybrids bring you back to the seed company year after year for new seed.

The big seed wholesalers like that just fine. They have been replacing open-pollinated varieties with hybrids for the past two generations. Open-pollinated varieties will come true to type. You can save seed from them and get the same variety the next year. Most of our great open-pollinated varieties started as genetic sports in the field or as products of deliberate farmer breeding. They were then completed by farmers, stabilized so that their seed would reproduce true-to-type year after year. Think of hybrids as incomplete varieties which have never been stabilized. The big seed wholesalers have an economic disincentive to complete them because they want you to be dependent.

They will use any means fair or foul to keep you dependent. If the glitter of the high-yielding hybrids is insufficient to lure you, they’ll stick language in the contracts such as the one I read. If that doesn’t do it, they are working on terminator technologies which will render any seed saved from their varieties sterile in the next generation!

The hybrid habit is hard to kick because little work has been done on breeding, improving or even maintaining open-pollinated varieties for many years. Those of you dependent for your living on having the earliest melons or raising unblemished tomatoes will not be able to go cold turkey or you will suffer from delirium tremens at your markets. But we can begin. Experiment with promising open-pollinated varieties. Do some modest variety trials on your own. Begin to replace a few hybrids each year with the best op varieties you can find. At the same time educate your customers about what constitutes quality. Let them taste heirloom tomatoes and learn that quality is more than just a pretty face.

Support the scores of alternative seed companies that have sprouted up in the last generation who are researching the old varieties to fill the glaring gaps in our lineup of good open-pollinated varieties. Do you have seed or know of seed for an old variety that has been handed down? Get it into the Seed Savers Exchange (an organization of more than 1,000 seed savers preserving more than 11,000 varieties) or send a few trial samples to your favorite seed companies. Do you know of good old varieties not readily available in the catalogs? Let your favorite small seed supplier know about them.

Better yet, become a seed saver. Save seeds from varieties you like. Pass them on to friends. Join the Seed Savers Exchange and adopt a few varieties to preserve. That’s what Kent and Diane Whealy did 25 years ago when they started the Exchange with three varieties Kent’s grandfather had left him. Because seeds, like money, are energy. Like money, when they accumulate and concentrate in a few hands it is a sign of social disease. When they circulate freely and are regrown widely it is a sign of social health. If you want to get started seed saving Rob Johnston has a great little book called Growing Garden Seeds for all of $2.50. He hasn’t increased the price in at least twenty years. If that whets your appetite, and you want to go in more deeply, Seed to Seed is the bible. I have a few with me at the CT-NOFA table.

When you save seeds you become aware of a whole other facet of a plant’s being. You may notice some variation in your plantings. Maybe a few plants are setting fruit earlier or making bigger paste tomatoes or just a little more tolerant of cold nights. That may lead you irresistibly to selection. You might be able to select seeds from the plants exhibiting one or more of these interesting characteristics to improve the variety you love. And once you get interested in selection you’re on your way to becoming a plant breeder. Now there’s a great deal of mystification about all this, just as there is about any profession (my favorite doctrine in law school was res ipsa locutor which simply means “the thing speaks for itself”, thus a fancy Latin phrase which says almost nothing!!) but fortunately along comes Carol Deppe, a true heroine of our time, to take the bewilderment out of plant breeding. And her wonderful book, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, (and I also brought a few of these) makes the science simple enough for anyone to understand and can start you on your way. Now you’re not only a grower of food, but also a grower of seeds, not only a grower of seeds but also a developer of new kinds of seeds and new varieties. Farmers have been doing it for thousands of years, they set the tradition, they defined the norms, it is the Monsantos who are usurpers on the block. Besides, it’s fun and it might be more interesting to you to start looking at the qualities of plants than producing large quantities of the same plant and more interesting still to engage in dynamic interaction with the sexuality of plants, to become a cocreator rather than an overseer of many rows of the same variety.

Still not convinced? Let me introduce you to a few more seedy characters. Glenn Drowns in Iowa has the Sand Hill Preservation Center. His catalog is like no others. By the time you have read his 2-page introduction you feel that you know him and his family. Deeply religious, he alternately tells stories of disasters and uplifting moments his family experienced in the past year, liberally interspersed with biblical scripture to draw the proper morals. You would never find this in any of the glossy slick color catalogs put out by mainstream seed vendors. A child prodigy, he bred Blacktail Mountain Watermelon while he was still a teenager. Blacktail is one of the earliest and longest keeping watermelons. Drowns has hundreds of vegetable varieties in his catalog that you won’t find elsewhere, but he grows over 90% of the items he lists on his own farm and they come in and out of the catalog according to the vicissitudes of his fortunes. “Please remember that we don’t discontinue varieties, but the nature of our company means that we will have temporary crop failures…” he trumpets in all capital letters so you can’t miss it. Then goes on to say, “Please don’t interpret a crop failure as a varietal weakness. We have so many projects that sometimes things such as lack of hours in the day, rodents, late plantings, weather, can ruin a seed crop.” Refreshing honesty. He is also a poultry preservationist and the place you would go to find Silver Penciled Wyandottes and other rare breeds. In his spare time Drowns teaches high school science.

Across the country in Oregon is Frank Morton, photographer, archer, homeschooler and practitioner of farming like a meadow. His work is oft-featured in our catalog. An artist at mixing leafy edibles, Morton has bred a long list of gorgeous tasty designer greens from Antares, Hyper Rumpled Red and Blushed Butter Oak lettuces to Wrinkled Crinkled Cress, White Russian Kale and a breathtaking array of broccoli x flowering kale crosses in which he is still mixing textures and colors in his gene pools. Morton, possessing a surpassing love for watermelon at age 5, realized that the only way to have all the watermelon he wanted was to grow it himself so he planted his freshly spit out watermelon seeds in the middle of August into hardpan West Virginia clay. “I insist on proceeding with unpromising projects,” he wrote in a letter to me in 1997 “…I imagine that the most satisfying life is one where we create our own wealth on our own terms. I knew, somehow, at age 5, that farming would give me whatever I wanted most. So for 17 years now I’ve been practicing this art of making a life out of what moves me from the inside, and for the past seven years (I guess, by now, 10 years), Karen and I have been passing this impulse on to our kids.” Morton says seeds are among the best deals in nature and to be involved in their production, handling and sowing is to yield a powerful influence over an agroecology. He’d rather be part of such a community than be master of it, and finds stabilizing a variety not nearly so interesting as mixing them up. He is most proud of the acceptance of several of his genetically diverse gene pools into the seed trade. He hopes that gardeners will be inspired to select their favorite forms from these gene pools, giving rise to new local varieties in diverse climates around the country. Fedco is one of a consortium of small seed companies, none of whom could afford to hire a plant breeder on their own, who are helping to underwrite Morton’s breeding work.

It is through the work of these deeply intuitive seedpeople, the Meaders, Whealys, Johnstons, Deppes, Drowns and Mortons that each of us can draw inspiration for a very different future from the one Monsanto plans for us. They are among the architects of an alternative seed production that will in time be the foundation of our alternative food production. Their work is our work, too.

How can we best support this work? By continuing in our exalted calling as small farmers…(Sam Smith of Caretaker Farm in Massachusetts has a wonderful essay called “The Human as Small Farmer” in which he uses that term ‘exalted’) by continuing our restoration of the Earth, serving and preserving the Garden. By awakening our own capacity to be seed sowers, seed growers, and seed breeders, and, like Frank Morton, by working with what moves us from the inside.

Let me close with this quote from Rav Kook who was chief rabbi of Israel in the 1940s and 1950s

The Perfection of Life that will Unfold
Sexual desire streams into the future,
To the completion of life that time will bring:
The life of the world-to-come within this world.
That future life is filled with complete beauty and pleasure.
There exists a precious strategy whose goal is to rectify
This holy foundation,
to turn sexuality and its essential offshoots
To the holy goal of life.
That strategy is the cornerstone of all spiritual strivings,
It establishes the world of humanity,
Both internal and external.
Thus, great is the yearning and the strength of desire
of the sexual energy, which is all-encompassing;

Only upon this energy does ultimate holiness rest its light.They can take away our votes but they cannot take away our truth. Knowing that our work is right at the heart of our relationship with all living beings, let us go forth to continue and strengthen what we have begun.