Growing Resilient Seed in Hell’s Half Acre

Frank Morton in a lettuce breeding plot.
Seed Matters funds public plant breeding, and in 2015 for the first time we are supporting the work of a private plant breeder Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds to breed quinoa, kale, lettuce and parsley. Why fund a private plant breeder who has a commercial seed company? It’s pretty simple – the plant breeding done by Frank Morton serves a public good. Frank breeds resilient varieties suited to organic farmers and gardeners, and releases these varieties without placing patents or other restrictions on seed saving and continued breeding. Not exactly the Monsanto model of crop improvement. Read below to find out more about his approach to organic seed

In order to create the most resilient seeds, organic farmer and seed breeder Frank Morton first tried to kill as many heads of lettuce as possible. From 2002 to 2004, Morton grew forty varieties of lettuce in the worst conditions: He planted them too close together, misted them continually, didn’t weed, and introduced diseases like downy mildew. In this unhappy garden patch, quickly nicknamed Hell’s Half Acre, close to ninety-five percent of the plants never made it to harvest. Morton’s friend, public plant breeder Dr. John Navazio, was one of the few who understood Morton’s strategy: It’s not how much you keep that matters, Navazio likes to say, it’s how much you throw away.

An organic farm is the ideal environment for developing plants that are naturally hearty. A plant that’s chemically treated with toxic, synthetic pesticides to prevent diseases and insects doesn’t have much work to do. “The pesticides and fertilizers are doing what the plant might do,” Morton says. “In an organic situation, the plant is required to fend for itself: seek nutrients and protect itself against disease. Its health is based on its own constitution.” Organic plants change shape to let in light and air and resist diseases and water. They produce chemicals to keep pests away. They create their own solutions.

In Hell’s Half Acre, Morton was looking for the best plant in the worst location. “A great looking field doesn’t tell me much,” Morton says, “I want to find plants that look great where they’re being challenged.” Over three years, he bred the most resilient plants he found into six varieties of lettuce that were especially disease resistant. Unfortunately, most of them tasted like cardboard. Luckily, Morton had also singled out eight varieties with interesting tastes, shapes, textures, vibrant pigments and pigment patterns, and at least average resistance. He began crossing them. The resulting lettuces were hearty enough to be shipped cross-country in unrefrigerated UPS trucks for forty-eight hours, but also beautiful and flavorful enough to be served at the finest restaurants. “It’s always a good idea to breed for chefs,” Morton says, “they know quality.” What made Morton’s lettuces especially beautiful and colorful also made them especially nutritious—in order to survive Hell’s Half Acre, the plants produced abundant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.

Morton ran both Wild Garden Salad and Wild Garden Seed for years, eventually transitioning full time to growing, breeding, and selling seed. He bred dozens of organic vegetables, herbs, and salad greens, and created entirely new varieties as well. From time to time, he also planted store-bought seeds of varietals he found interesting. Inevitably they didn’t do as well as the organic seed he’d bred himself—they were more susceptible to disease and fifty percent or more of those seeds died. “It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Morton says: Organic seed bred to thrive in an organic system produces a more robust crop than non-organic seed.

What was more surprising was that farmers from Maine to Texas were also planting Wild Garden Seed with impressive results. What Morton bred in Oregon also did well in Texas, two of the most dissimilar climates possible, and therein lies the real wonder of Morton’s seed: Because it’s been bred from such a broad genetic background, it also has an inherent plasticity, which means that wherever it’s planted, the genetics best-suited to those particular conditions can rise to the fore. Morton’s seed is highly adaptable and that makes it highly unusual. Most vegetable breeding and most large-scale agriculture focus on specific regions, such as the Salinas Valley. The also focus on specific uses, such as shipping and storing well. But organic agriculture happens in every climate and location, so Morton always breeds with an eye to diversity, resilience, self-sufficiency, and adaptability.

Compare the resilience of Morton’s lettuce with carrots grown nearby. Fifteen years ago, farmers in central Oregon planted their carrots each autumn and collected seed each spring. But breeders began tinkering with an eye to the perfect carrot. They selected for one or two specific traits that would always appear and the result was a beautiful, tasty carrot. At the same time and without meaning to, they’d also created a carrot that was more vulnerable. As they bred out diversity in the perfect-looking carrot, they also bred out resilience to cold. As a result, Oregon fields now have to be covered with acres of blankets in order for the carrots to survive the winter.

Conversely, a farmer in Wisconsin wrote to Morton because the Wild Garden lettuces that he was raising in unheated greenhouses had survived through the season’s first freeze. And even after they thawed, they still tasted good. The lettuce went on to survive till five below zero. Many of the sugars and dissolved solids (such as potassium, calcium, and various minerals) that help his lettuces adapt and survive, Morton points out, are the nutrients that make them healthy to eat.

Seed Matters is funding Morton’s work in four diverse crop species—quinoa, kale, parsley, and lettuce. This funding will allow Frank to continue breeding lettuces with increased levels of phytonutrients, parsley that’s suited to cold winter production, kale with high phytonutrient content and excellent freeze resistance, and new varieties of quinoa appropriate for North America. Morton’s new cultivars will benefit underserved organic farmers, as well as growers in diverse regions, and future growers facing the unpredictable conditions of climate change.

We might not all grow plants in a hellish environment, but the one thing we can be sure of is that precipitation, temperature, pest and disease pressure are rarely predictable, and rarely ideal. We need more people like Frank who see the challenges, and address them not for their own profit but because they want a stable and secure food future for all. Join us in sowing a better future. Donate to Seed Matters today.

Frank and his crew working in Hells Half Acre