Farm: Wild Garden Seed
Wild Garden Seed is a 2014 Local Hero Award nominee in the Farm category. Read about the Local Hero Awards and the nominees. Voting is now closed. Winners will be announced at Summer’s First BBQ on June 12 – get your tickets today to feast with the Pacific Northwest’s finest!
After graduating college, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds decided he didn’t want to do anything that his Psychology degree was supposed to prepare him for. So he moved to the country and started learning how to farm. Frank developed a specialty for salads and sold his leafy greens to restaurants. An accidental lettuce cross on his farm led to an epiphany about seeds that set him on a course that would become a fully-fledged seed business with an incredible catalog of organic plant varieties. Not only is Morton a go-to guy for good seeds, he also works tirelessly for the rights of organic growers, pushing back against strong forces that threaten the integrity of their crops and their livelihoods.
How did you get into seed saving, cataloging, and selling?
Early on I was saving my own seeds and using them to grow lettuce. Then one day I found a red lettuce plant in the middle of my green plants, and I knew that it was an accidental cross between two kinds of lettuce. So I saved that plant for seed, and planted those seeds the next year. With the next generation I saw the whole genetic rainbow of possibilities. A light came on in my head; I had a sort of revelation moment – this is where new varieties come from. I began to find these accidental crosses between varieties in kale, chicory, and mustard greens, and one day I had my second epiphany: if I kept saving my own seeds and selecting them under organic conditions, then in 20 years I could have a collection of completely unique plants. They would be bred under organic conditions and for my tastes and markets. I suddenly realized how useful plant breeding could be for a small farmer to create a unique identity in markets.
About a decade later, in 1994, my wife suggested that I sell the seeds, make a seed catalog, and distribute it to other seed companies and farmers. So we did that, and by 2001 I had moved out of the salad business and was into the seed business. We focused on selling seeds for organic salad greens. So now the seed business is 20 years old, and we are having terrific success supplying seed companies, selling directly to farmers, and collaborating with university plant breeders and private seed companies’ breeding projects.
Is there a model or key principles/standards that you work to uphold in your practice?
Diversity is very important. My seed catalog is unusual – it’s the only catalog that I know of where I grow everything in it. I really like that I grow all that variety in a diversified way, so that my fields are as diverse as my catalog. I think a diversity of genetics can be a useful tool to improve a farm or business. I want my business not just to be about selling good seeds, but to also to give an ecological perspective, and I try to imbue the catalog with that ecological perspective for educational purposes.
What has been one of your biggest challenges, and how have you confronted it?
In 2006, it was announced that the first GMO crop to be introduced to the Willamette Valley was coming – Roundup Ready sugar beets. I realized that if all that sugar beet seed was turning into GMO, the issue of it contaminating my crops was a much bigger deal than I would’ve imagined. I tried to get a protocol to make sure GMO pollen wasn’t getting into non-GMO crops. But I kept running into the same problem and hearing the same thing – if I didn’t like what was happening, then I could sue the USDA. So I did.
The Center for Food Safety offered to represent my interest in a case against the USDA, making the complaint that the USDA should have done an environmental impact statement that included the impact on the seed growing region. That was the heart of our case. We filed papers in January 2008 and it went on through 2011. It was a long case, and we kept winning until our case was moved to Washington, D.C., where it was decided that it is not the USDA’s role to prevent cross-pollination between GMO and organic crops. However, we had an important win: We set a precedent forcing the USDA to do an environmental impact assessment for GMO crops. This issue is far from over, and I’m now on the governor’s GMO task force, which is a discussion group designed to frame the issue of GMOs in Oregon.
What is a key goal you’re working toward in your business?
Most of my crew is under 30, and I try to use my seed business to instill in the next generation the idea that business is not about money. It’s about creating a life that you want to live. So I try to run my business that way. I’m not very strict in terms of making sure everyone is here at a certain time everyday, I try to make it so that I hire enough people so that when people need to go to the dentist, doctor, vacation or go home to see their mom, they can do it. I want this business to be a reflection of the farm it comes from and the farmers who run it. I want the business to free my employees and me to have a good life, and for the catalog to express our freewheeling nature. We don’t need to be uptight about this – it’s actually a lot of fun. This work is serious enough that we can laugh about it. I’m having fun, and I think I’m doing something good at the same time.
Are there any trends or changes in the industry that you find encouraging?
Luckily, there’s more encouraging news than discouraging. First of all, there has never been so much public awareness of the importance of seeds. There is a new consciousness that has arisen in the past five years or so, and people understand how fundamental seed issues are. Five years ago, I was still having to try to convince farmers that there was a difference between conventionally grown and organically grown seeds. If the seed was bred and grown in a system mediated by chemicals, that is a completely different environment than what we find on organic farms where there is none of that. I’m also encouraged by the fact that I also see lots of young people coming from horticulture programs who want to be local farmers, and they’re not just interested in vegetables, but milk, fiber, meat, eggs, and fish. That’s a fantastic thing for our food system.
Photos courtesy of Wild Garden Seed
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