My Secret Life as
by Gene Franks
Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens . . . the most vigorous, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.–Thomas Jefferson.
I was not born to govern, but to dig and to plow.–Sancho Panza.
For a color picture and more information about this hero, whom we call The Passionate Amateur, see the editorial note at the end of this article.
Editor’s Note: This piece was published in the early 1990s in the paper Pure Water Gazette. At this writing, April of 2012, it is clear that the author’s fears about agribusiness seed patenting have become reality.
Stephen Foster, they say, was never in Kentucky, but he managed somehow to write the best song anyone ever wrote about his or her old Kentucky home. This gave me courage to write something about agriculture.
While my hands-on farming experience is probably not much greater than Foster’s experience with old Kentucky homes, I have been, all my days, an enthusiastic consumer of agricultural products as well as a passionate winter farmer. Winter farming is to be understood in the context of summer patriotism and sunshine soldiering.
On one of the two or three days cool enough to pass for winter here, I get out my seed catalogs, drool over the pictures in front of a nice fire, then call in an order for enough seeds to plant a broad greenbelt from by back door to somewhere deep in Central America. In two weeks I have chairs and tables filled with trays of peat pots, which soon contain pale seedlings with Olive Oil figures–more like growing hairs than future vegetable bushes. Some live long enough to get transplanted later to outdoor soil.
From that point, things go downhill. Spring, here, is only a calendar maker’s theory, and as the weather heats up, my passion for farming cools down. Heat makes me philosophical; I start thinking about plants rights, especially the right of Johnson weed and Bermuda grass to live among beets and okra if they so choose. In the end, the weeds and grasses predominate. I get some potatoes, planted by the easy Ruth Stout no-digging system, and enough tomatoes to gorge myself on for a few days. I have lots of grapes, if the rain falls right, plums, if a late frost doesn’t ruin them, and most years a tree full of bright orange Japanese persimmons, of which I sell half to the Persimmon Lady for $5.
If you have a persimmon tree, you probably know the Persimmon Lady. I see her only at harvest time, just after the first frost, when she shows up at my door and insists on buying part of my crop, although I offer it free. Probably, like a phantom from a sad country song, she visits all farms with persimmon trees so she can make big trays of her deceased daughter’s favorite persimmon candy to take to orphanages. That’s my theory, anyway. So although my farming has more often taken the form of planning, theorizing, and talking than of plowing, digging, and sweating, I consider myself a farmer none the less. And it is the annual sale of half my persimmon crop that makes me a professional farmer and qualifies me to write with authority about agriculture.
On Seeds and Unsung Heroes
As food crops become more uniform, so do cultures. Foods and crops are an important part of a people’s heritage: they perpetuate and enrich its customs. As food crops become more uniform, so do people. As traditional varieties become extinct, human cultures lose something very special and irreplaceable.–The 2nd Graham Center Seed and Nursery Directory (1983).
Gardeners are emerging as principal biological heroes in the struggle of the era to maintain the biological diversity that sustains life on the planet. Backyard biodiversity is becoming prime territory for the conservation of life.– Seeds of Changc 1994 Seed Catalog.
It was during my winter seed catalog ogling almost 20 years ago that I started to catch on that events of great significance were taking place that almost no one knew about. While junk news consumers were wallowing in the tribulations of whoever was the O.J. Simpson of the time, I, sans TV then as now, was reading some weird stuff in the old Graham Center Seed Directoryand Kent Whealy’s Seed Savers Exchange bulletins. I learned, for example, that in 1970, after several decades of pressure from the seed Industry, which is actually an appendage of multinational oil and pharmaceuticals corporations, Congress quietly caved in and passed the nation’s first seed patenting bill. It was quickly signed into law by President Nixon. Ten years later, a lame duck Congress passed controversial amendments to the original legislation which were signed by President Carter.
No one seemed too worried about this but a couple of professors, a man in Princeton, Missouri named Kent Whealy, folks at a non-profit organization called the National Sharecroppers Fund, and a few thousand radical vegetable gardeners in small towns around the country who were depleting their meagre resources and working their dirty fingernails off to keep about half a million ancient plant varieties that were being dropped from seed catalogs from becoming extinct. I should explain, for you non-farmers, that preserving plant varieties doesn’t mean just putting little bags of seeds in alphabetioal order. Seeds must be planted to make new seeds from time to time because their life span is limited. It was a formidable task. Something like saving the rainforest by replanting it in your backyard. Like the heroes of old who brought the Scriptures through the Dark Ages, amateur gardeners were feverishly working to keep plants alive when the establishment wanted them dead.
I read about heroes like John Withee, who founded a non-profit organization called Wanigan Associates (“the legal name for a one man bean hobby,” he called it), for the purpose of collecting, propagating, and distributing seeds of heirloom beans. (For more information about Mr. Withee, go here.) [Heirlooms, by broad definition, are open-pollinated varieties several generations old–often of European descent. Open-pollinated means plants which pollinate without human interference, or, in Kenny Ausubel’s words, “they propagate themselves in the imaginative multiplicity of sexy practices nature designed.”] Wanigan (Withee), without a government grant or a research staff, was keeping about 400 varieties of beans alive. His “associates” were amateur gardeners around the country who volunteered to plant and save seeds from specific varieties of beans.
And there was Kent Whealy, a journalist who got interested in heirloom plants when Baptist Ott, his wlfe’s grandfather, gave him some bean, tomato, and morning glory seeds he had brought from Bavaria and kept going for four human generations. Whealy was soon so involved in seed saving that he quit his day job, lived through some financial hard times, and eventually founded a non-profit organization called Seed Savers Exchange that became the rallying point for individuals interested in saving heirloom plant varieties from extinction.
Whealy stated the organization’s purpose in the 1981 Seed Savers Exchange yearbook:
Thc Seed Savers Exchange is an organization of gardeners who are working together to save heirloom and endangered vegetable varieties from extinction. We are particularly interested in contacting gardeners who are presently keeping seed of vegetable varieties that are: family heirlooms; not in any seed catalog; garden varieties of Indian, Mennonite, Amish, Dunkard, Hutterite, or Cajun gardeners; foreign unusual or mutational extremely disease-resistant, insect-resistant, or drought-resistant; very hardy, of exceptional quality, or otherwise outstanding.
Wheaty eventually moved the SSE from its original Mlssouri home to the present site at Heritage Farm in lowa. (SSE, RR3, Box 239, Decorah IA 52101.) Heritage Farm, recently expanded to 84 acres, is home of an Incredible cache of seeds, literally thousands of vegetable varieties, some dating from the Mayflower. There are even some endangered animals, including the ancient wild white park cattle, hunting targets in England from the 12th century, now almost extinct. A recent project was the addition of about 500 varieties of 19th century apples.
Of the many dedicated amateurs who devoted much energy to bringing heirloom plants through the Dark Ages of the 20th century, I will single out a gentleman named Ben Quisenberry. I bought tomato seeds from Mr. Quisenberry for several years. For a couple of dollars, he always sent six times as many seeds as I ordered in little packets with the lines:
The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
Mr. Quisenberry lived in Syracuse Qhio. I still have correspondence from him in my file, written in a clear, steady hand when he was in his nineties. In his last letter, from January of 1982, he returned my $3 and told me he was now past 95, out of the seed business, and a resident at “the Charleston Court, a home for old folks.” Two years earlier he had suffered a tragic loss. He had to go to the hospital “just when my tomato garden of 500 plants needed me most,” and when he got out he had lost 22 of the 31 tomato varieties he was propagating. Among the lost varieties were Stump of the World, a rare Square tomato, and Tiger Tom.
.The regular seed lists Mr. Quisenberry sent me featured names like Big Ben, Long Tom, Red Cup, Mortgage Lifter, Marglobe, Chech’s Bush, and his favorite, the pink, thin-skinned Brandywine, which, he boasted had been grown for over 100 years by the same family: “Proof of excellence.” Anyone interested can still grow Mr. Quisenberry’s Brandywine by purchasing seeds from Seeds of Change, currently the nation’s leading purveyor of heirloom seeds [PO Box 15700/ Santa Fe, NM 87506. Phone: (505) 438-8080.]
Mr. Quisenberry, an expert tomato grower, maintained hundreds of varieties of tomatoes from 1910 until shortly before his death. His seed lists always encouraged customers to become ex-customers by saving their own seeds. Here, for posterity, are the instructions he sent me for saving tomato seeds:
Tomato should be dead ripe; cut in half between the stem and blossom ends. Push the seed out of the cavities, and wash on a piece of wire fly screen to remove the pulp and goo from the seeds. Spread them out on a smooth board; move them around occasionally so they won’t stick together or to the board. When thoroughly dry, store in an air-tight container. Longevity of tomato seed is 5 years or longer.
Mr. Quisenberry won’t make the history books, but he was one of my heroes. Why does our society consider it more important to kick a ball or write a movie script than to grow tomatoes? (For a related article on Mr. Quisenberry, with an impressive picture, go to the Gazette’s Hero Award section.)
The Curious Custom of Plant Patenting
Under existing plant patenting legislation, corporations get protective patents, royalties and vastly reduced competition. Farmers and gardeners are faced with illegal varieties, hybrids whose seeds cannot be saved and royalty fees they never had to pay for non-patented seeds. Plant patenting laws offer protection for corporate profits while further narrowing the genetic basis on which agriculture itself depends.Declaring certain varieties illegal and patenting others is a bizarre luxury we cannot afford. The 2nd Graham Center Seed and Nursery Directory (Rural Advancement Fund, 1983).
Old friends are always the best, you see,
New friends you can find any day–
From an old Jimmie Rodgers song.
The concept of ownership, even the parts we accept through long usage, can be bizarre. Each year a Kansas oil company sends me two or three checks for about $15 in payment for my .0065105000 royalty interest in crude oil taken from beneath land described as NE/4 SW/4 NE/4 SECTION 20-12N-10E of Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. Like the cab driver in the Harry Chapin song, I always stuff the check in my shirt, but I can’t quit wondering how I, among all earth’s creatures, was chosen to be the “owner” of something that was in the earth eons before I was born. Apparently I own it because my grandfather happened to plant corn on the land above it, but it would make as much sense for me to claim a .0065105000 share of sunshine or the planet Jupiter.
Suppose I decide to keep “my” oil rather than sell it to the Sonoco Oil Co. (which I probably couldn’t do, since I only “own” the right to sell it for the price the oil company sets, not to possess it), and I learn to process my oil in some special way that makes it unique and that I go to the U. S. Patent Office and get a patent on my particular type of oil. All who sell oil that falls under my patent description will then have to pay me royalties. But my oil looks exactly like everyone else’s and it is very hard to enforce my patent, so I go back to the Patent Office and to help me out they give me a patent on all oil that is black so it will be very easy to tell who is using my oil. Imagine Exxon’s dismay upon learning it will have to pay to use my patented black oil.
This story isn’t as far-fetched as you think; in fact, it closely parallels the deal we got when the same multinationals who later brought us NAFTA and GATT bullied Congress into allowing plant patenting. The patenting of plants is an idea so absurd that sensible people would not entertain it, but while Americans were getting their opinions on farm policy from Green Acres , “ownership” of the cardboard tomatoes on their burgers quietly passed from the public domain to ITT.
Ownership of plants falls in the same category as the ownership of sunshine. Tomatoes, for example, are ancient beings. They were cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs (“tomato” derives from an Aztec word). They were “discovered” by Spaniards, taken to Europe, then “introduced” to America by Europeans early in our history. They have been standard American fare since the late 19th century. But by obtaining the right to patent plants, the multinationals have put themselves in a position to “own” patented varieties of tomatoes, to charge us a fee for using “their” tomatoes, and even eventually to gain control over broad categories of tomato varieties to protect their patent rights. In a recent example, a company that obtained patents for two genetically altered varieties of snap beans was given a patent over hundreds of similar snap beans. Cary Fowler, in the old Graham Center Seed Directory for 1979, described events in Europe, where Common Market interests brought in seed patenting before our own laws were passed:
In Europe where the [seed patenting] laws were first passed, there have been problems with enforcement. It is not easy to describe a variety of tomato or anything else in such detail that it could be positively distinguished from another variety in a court of law. Furthermore, as the varieties are grown each year they often change (genetically) in subtle ways in response to their environment. This presents more legal headaches for the company trying to enforce its patent on a “product” which differs from year to year. In an attempt to reduce these problems, European lawmakers are phasing in a system which would make some plant varieties now grown in Europe illegal! These varieties could not be grown commercially. Their seeds could not be sold. Even backyard gardeners could not grow the illegal varieties if their gardens were located within a certain distance of a commercial plot. Think of being hauled into court on a charge of growing a “Big Boy” tomato!
Immediately after the passage of seed patenting laws in England, Shell Oil of Great Britain bought 56 seed companies. In the United States, the number of seed companies has fallen rapidly since plant patenting became law; most of the old standard seed companies are now owned by multinational oil, chemical, and pharmaceuticals companies. If you buy Burpee seeds, you are now buying from ITT. Gurney belongs to Amfac, Golden Acres to Diamond Shamrock, DeKalb to Monsanto, Ferry Morse to Limagrain of France. Other highly invested seed company owners are Cargill, Ciba-Geigy, Union Carbide, International Multifoods, Occidental Petroleum, Sandoz, Stauffer Chemical, and Upjohn. Seeds aren’t just business; with patenting, they have become very big business.
Although the seed trade itself can be lucrative, especially if you “own” certain plant varieties whose seeds can’t be saved by customers, the multinationals’ main interest in seeds is that they complete a cozy loop with their other businesses. Seeds fit nicely with agribusiness, the processed food industry, oil, and pharmaceuticals. The idea is to create monoculture crops that require lots of agricultural chemicals and energy-intensive farming methods to produce food that is easy to package and sell but so devoid of nutrients that the end product is medical and pharmaceuticals customers. A cozy loop.
Because the people who make agricultural chemicals also sell seeds, much research (paid for usually by public grants to universities) is dedicated to developing pesticide-resistant plants. The push is to create plant varieties that go best with oil-and-chemical-intensive agriculture and that lend themselves to mass merchandising rather than consumer satisfaction and nourishment. To believe that companies that take in millions per year on headache remedies don’t want you to have a headache is ultimately naive. To drug vendors, nutritionally depleted, chemical-laden foods are as much an asset as illness-producing drugs and vaccines.
The immediate effect of the multinational companies’ takeover of the seed industry has been a drastic and serious loss of plant diversity. Small seed companies, often family owned, had for years been a mainstay against government-supported standardization of agriculture. Old varieties of farm and garden seeds were maintained and supplied as a matter of tradition and as a service to customers, even when they were not best sellers. New corporate owners, however, conducted the seed business the same way they conducted their other businesses, with a bottom line of profit. Marginally profitable varieties were quickly dropped in favor of the company’s best selling patented hybrids. [For non-farmers: Hybrids are produced by human intervention through crossing two genetically different parents. Hybrids are dear to seed companies’ hearts because seeds cannot be relied upon for future planting. You have to go back to the seed company for next year’s seeds.] Abandoned strains of traditional plant varieties quickly perish unless a conscious effort is made to preserve them.
So much has been written about the importance of biodiversity in regard to rainforest preservation that I won’t belabor the point except to say that the same urgent need exists for agricultural diversity. The adage that variety is the spice of life does not go far enough. Variety is nature’s most persistent strategy for excellence and for survival. While most people now grasp the importance of preserving endangered animal species, few are concerned about losing the Chech’s Bush tomato.
The junk news has woefully underreported the precarious state of America’s food production system. Few know, for example, that in 1970 we barely averted disaster when corn blight wiped out a large part of the nation’s hybrid corn crop. The National Academy of Sciences warned that not only corn but “most crops are impressively uniform genetically and impressively vulnerable.” Of the innumerable varieties of corn, large seed companies had by the 1970s quietly squeezed a// but six varieties virtually out of the market. Seventy-one percent of America’s corn crop was grown from only six varieties, and three of these were said to be virtually identical. Only one variety of sweet potato accounts for 69% of our annual crop, and 95% of our peanuts are from 9 varieties. It is a system designed to make money, not to assure an abundant and secure supply of nutritious food.
Junk Food, Junk News:
The American Way
Big Mac is a junk version of food, porno a junk version of sex, virtual reality a junk version of life—they all entertain but leave one with a sort of hollow, empty feeling afterward.–Christopher Scheer in The Nation.
Our problem lies in the postulate that everything can be “explained” by taking recourse to death-related laws.—Theodor Schwenk.
When issues are filtered through regular government, business, and public information channels, which I collectively call the junk news, they usually come out in neat, TV-compatible parcels. The complexities which contain the substance are lost in the process. For example, when the junk news presents the “controversy” surrounding vaccination, which is a terribly complex issue, it is conveniently reduced to the statistical probability of your child’s having a dramatic reaction to a shot. As devastating as reactions are, especially to damaged or dead children and their parents, they are only a small part of the larger issue of what vaccines do to the individual’s total health and the health of others, or how they affect the well-being of future generations.
The issue of conventionally vs. organically grown food, similarly, has been implanted in the public mind as largely a question of pesticide residues. Thus, your choice between organic broccoli, at triple the price, and the grocery store variety may be based on how you view the conflicting reports of how many rats per thousand are killed by how many parts per million of this as opposed to that pesticide. Important as pesticide residue is, it is only at small part of the issue.
The molding of public opinion on food has been exceptionally effective. We are trained by the junk media and university nutritionists to view the body as a sort of input/output machine that runs on fuels called proteins, carbohydrates and fats. These are viewed by nutrition “experts” as dead and impersonal objects, like gasoline or diesel fuel, whose power can be measured as “calories” and whose worth can be manipulated with synthetic additives. To use the great German hydrologist Theodor Schwenk’s term, food has been “demythologized.” Once a source of wonder and veneration, revered in Springtime rituals as a symbol of life itself, the noble grain of wheat has now been hybridized, chemicalized , and devitalized–embalmed and buried, with an impersonal epitaph called a food label, in a frozen pepperoni pizza.
Schwenk also said that “a subtle death-process” was at play in the creation of such devices as the refrigerator and the automobile, where “natural laws were stripped of wisdom and projected into matter.” Certainly a “death process” was involved in the creation of our food production and delivery system. The end of the process, the modern supermarket, is a graveyard of embalmed animal cadavers, chemicals contrived to resemble food, grains grossly overprocessed from genetically engineered seed to deadly Twinkie, and tasteless, painted, rubbery imitations of fruits and vegetables which have only coincidental resemblance to their namesake.
Part of the input/output mythology is that foods have a constant value in food-label grade nutrients that has been recorded for all time in government nutrient lists like USDA’s famous Handbook 8.Though it has been known for decades that these compilations are myth, people still believe in them and universities still teach them as gospel. I remember an article from 1960s by Adele Davis called “Which Apricot? Grown Where?” which demonstrated the utter fallibility of the nutrient-table system. More recently, the General Accounting Office demonstrated at length that Handbook 8 is flawed and unreliable and that, in fact, most information on processed foods is simply copied from manufacturers’ brochures without verification. After all, McDonald’s would not lie. (USDA has forgotten, perhaps, that a major baby food maker, all its baby-adoring ads notwithstanding, was convicted of selling flavored sugar water labelled “apple juice” for years.) We have recently heard stories of frozen orange juice and even “fresh” grocery store oranges that contained no trace of vitamin C. Papayas tested by GAO contained less than 1/7 the vitamin A promised by Handbook 8.
Once Again, the Killer Tomato
People joke about the deplorable quality of produce and say “tomatoes don’t taste like they used to,” but few realize fully the torture that modern agribusiness inflicts on standard food plants. Peter Bahouth, former director of Greenpeace, was eating a salad one day in Toronto and became curious about the tomato’s origin. His research resulted in an article called “Attack of the Killer Tomato,” which appeared in the 1994 Seeds of Change Catalog and was excerpted in Vegetarian Voice (Vol. 20, No. 3).
The tomato, Bahouth discovered, was grown on Mexican land that had once been publicly owned “ejidos,” or small collective farms worked by local farmers. It was now controlled by a partnership of the Jolly Green Giant Company and the Mexican Development Corp. The killer tomato was grown from a hybrid seed developed from a Mexican strain at U.S. taxpayer expense by the University of California, then sold to Calgene, Inc., which obtained a patent.
The land was “prepared” by fumigation with methylbromide, said to be an ozone depleter 120 times more potent than CFC-111, then treated with Monsanto pesticides by $2.50-per-day unprotected Mexican farm workers. Production waste was shipped to the world’s largest hazardous waste landfill in Emelle, Alabama.
After harvest, the tomato was wrapped in plastic, placed in a plastic tray, and put in a cardboard box. Citizens of Point Comfort, Texas get the brunt of the health problems from making the plastic, while 300-year-old trees in British Columbia and Great Lakes area residents downstream from pulp mills take the hit for the boxes.
The tasteless tomato, once boxed, was reddened by ether and shipped to Canada in CFC-refrigerated trucks at great expenditure of energy. In Toronto, the plastic was discarded and shipped to Detroit for incineration. The amount of fuel used for the entire process is staggering. Behouth concludes:
The Toronto tomato probably cost 50 cents, but we can see that if we really look at the true economics of an everyday item like a tomato we are not folding in the social costs of this type of production. That’s what is really driving this type of economic system. You realize that having your own garden and growing your own tomatoes can be a very subversive and radical act. And it makes the fruit taste that much sweeter.
The Gazette challenges you do do something radical. Grow a tomato!
Editor: “My Secret Life as a Farmer” first appeared in the Spring 1995 issue (No. 45) of the PURE WATER GAZETTE. Related articles from the same issue you might like to look at are “Is Organic Food Worth the Price?” by Gene Franks, and Tiger Tom’s weighty indictment of animal patenting, “Give ’em an Inch.” The caption to the lead picture of the tomato farmer was originally the lead in to “The Gazette’s Great Coloring Contest.” I’m sorry–the contest is over, but if you’d like to print the picture and test your crayola skills, have at it.
Below is the winning entry as colored by Mr. R. L. Duwe of Decatur, TX. Here’s the Gazette’s artsy rational for choosing Duwe’s entry, which appeared in Gazette #46:
If I were an art critic, I would explain Mr. Duwe’s strength as a crayonist by praising his radiant colors, his keen attention to surface detail, his rich pigmentation, and his superb pictorial arrangement. I would describe how his strong, rhythmic curvilinear organization enhances the theme of the work. I would speak of the rich nuances of color, the boldness of his crayon strokes, the perfectly executed perspective, the intimacy he establishes with his subject matter, the delicacy of his flesh tones, his masterful use of symbolism to elevate the tomato grower to archetypal proportions. But not being an art critic, I’ll just say that he stayed in the lines, his picture was pretty, and I liked it.