Somehow I always thought the seeds, bulbs, and roots I purchased from mail order companies came from a quaint American farm, somewhere in the heartland, with burgeoning rows of high quality vegetables and flowers. I was as wrong as a two-headed frog.
It all started last August when I used a coupon from Gurney’s to order asparagus roots. By the third week of September my order hadn’t arrived. I decided something was amiss and called the company.
The customer service representative I spoke with assured me my order would arrive at the proper planting time for my zone, sometime near the beginning of December.
I was confused, how was I supposed to plant anything in zone 3b in December?
The cheery voice told me to put the crowns straight in the ground and mulch over them. They would be fine.
I expressed my doubts. I already checked with my local extension agent, the president of the local Master Gardener association, and a knowledgeable neighbor before calling. No one thought planting asparagus after October in our area was a good idea. I would just take a refund.
The less-than-knowledgeable representative asked me to hold while she checked with someone. Silence. A few minutes later a chipper voice came on the line and said, “Spring Hill Nurseries.”
Huh? I explained that I was holding for someone at Gurney’s. “No problem,” the jaunty voice assured me, “I’ll transfer you.”
More silence and another voice came on the line, “Henry Fields.”
“I’m holding for Gurney’s. What’s going on?”
Not to worry, she could transfer me. I hoped so, this wasn’t a toll free number and I was racking up the minutes running around in this long distance circle.
More silence and then-click. They hung up on me.
But who had hung up, Gurney’s, Spring Hill Nurseries, or Henry Fields? And why was I transferred from one to the other?
The name game
I decided to take a closer look at Gurney’s. I remembered hearing something about them going out of business a few years ago. The large mail order company Foster and Gallagher, who owned Gurney’s and many other seed companies, filed for bankruptcy in Indiana, putting hundreds of people out of work.
Like most gardeners, the logistics of the seed industry were of little interest to me. I simply shrugged the whole thing off and went on my merry way.
Now I found myself staring at the FAQs page on Gurney’s website, where it says the company was bought at a bankruptcy hearing a couple of years ago by a group of “lifelong mail order gardeners.”
After scrolling to the bottom of the page I noticed the copyright for the website is held by Scarlet Tanager, LLC doing business as Gurney’s. This must be the group of lifelong mail order gardeners that bought the company.
Anyone can find information on a company (or corporation) by contacting the Secretary of State in the state where the company is located. Since Gurney’s is located in Indiana, I decided to pop over to the Indiana Secretary of State’s website to see if Scarlet Tanager, LLC is listed in their corporate database.
Sure enough there it was. It is an umbrella corporation for The Garden Store, The Michigan Bulb Company, Gurney’s, and Henry Field’s. For a mere $1 fee to the fine state of Indiana I was able to find the owner of Scarlet Tanager, LLC, Niles Kinerk. A couple of peripheral searches turned up more information on Mr. Kinerk. He also owns Spring Hill Nurseries, Breck’s Bulbs, Audubon Workshop, Flower of the Month Club, and Gardens Alive. Wow, Niles has a lot of companies under his umbrella.
It turns out he’s not alone. Totally Tomatoes, R.H. Shumway, The Vermont Bean Seed Company, Seeds for the World, Seymour’s Selected Seeds, HPS, Roots and Rhizomes, and McClure and Zimmerman Quality Bulb Brokers are all standing shoulder to shoulder under the J.W. Jung Seed Company’s umbrella.
Under Park Seed Company’s canopy you’ll find Wayside Gardens, Park Bulbs, and Park’s Countryside Garden.
The list goes on.
No matter which catalog you order from, the chances are pretty good you are getting the exact same seed as everyone else. Virtually every large mail-order garden company in the United States uses a seed broker to supply them with stock. The broker’s job is to find tons of seed at a low price. They contract with competing umbrella corporations, selling the same seed to everyone.
As if the waters weren’t muddy enough, each mail-order seed company can resell the same seed using different names for it. For example, you see a wonderful red lettuce named Sheep’s Tongue in catalog A and place your order. A couple of days later you see another red lettuce named Camel’s Tongue in catalog B. You really like red lettuce so you order some from the other catalog too. A few weeks after planting you notice they look and taste exactly alike. What’s going on?
Well, the patent on the lettuce known as Sheep’s Tongue has expired, or it is an heirloom and never had a patent. If there is no patent anyone can grow and sell it. However, if the company that owns catalog A has a trademark on the name Sheep’s Tongue, other re-sellers will have to call it something else. This is true for plants, roots, bulbs, and trees.
At first glance this just seems like good old American business forging ahead. But there is something unsettling about this whole arrangement. How are we supposed to know who we are dealing with when we buy seed? And where does all this seed come from?
Trying to find out is like playing pin the tail on the donkey, the only way to know for sure is to take off the blindfold.
King of the hill
The American nursery trade is a 39.6 billion dollar a year industry. With the purchase of Seminis in January of 2005, Monsanto is now estimated to control between 85 and 90 percent of the U.S. nursery market. This includes the pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer markets. By merging with or buying up the competition, dominating genetic technology, and lobbying the government to make saving seeds illegal, this monolith has positioned itself as the largest player in the gardening game.
Monsanto holds over eleven thousand U.S. seed patents. When Americans buy garden seed and supplies, most of the time they are buying from Monsanto regardless of who the retailer is.
Most home gardeners started noticing the initials PVP appearing next to selections in the mail order garden catalogs a few years ago. This stands for Plant Variety Protection. It means the seed or plant carries a U.S. patent. It is illegal to save seed from or otherwise propagate PVP varieties. Consumers will have to buy more each year if they wish to grow a PVP variety.
Greenpeace chides, “Monsanto-no food shall be grown that we don’t own.”
They could be right.
Terminator Technology promises to be a big money maker for Monsanto and its subsidiaries. Plants are genetically modified so they won’t produce seed, or if seed is produced, it is sterile. With this maneuver they are guaranteed a continuing market for vegetable, fruit, and flower seed.
Consider the newest Frankenstein called Traitor technology. This charming little piece of genetic engineering will help Monsanto’s chemical division rake in billions of dollars a year from across the globe. It allows growers to control the genetic traits of plants by applying an array of chemicals, all owned by Monsanto. Do your genetically modified watermelons have blight? No problem, for a price you can buy the chemical that will turn on the plant’s blight fighting gene. No kidding. It is estimated Traitor technology could dominate world seed supply with an astonishing 80 percent of the market by 2010.
Six companies Du Pont, Mitsui, Monsanto, Syngent, Aventis and Dow control 98 percent of the world’s seeds. These companies are opening research facilities and acquiring local seed companies and farmland on every continent, and they can’t do it fast enough.
Imports of seed and stock from Pakistan, India, Mexico,Thailand and of course China, are on the rise. Countries like Thailand boast of seed exports rising at 12 percent per year from 1998-2001. American seed exports fell at twice that rate for the same time period.
As biotechnology forges on, something is lost. At first it is barely noticeable, just a sense that something is different.
Ashes, ashes, all fall down
Before it was acquired by Monsanto, Seminis eliminated 2,000 varieties of seed from its inventory. The first things to go were the older open-pollinated varieties; vining petunias, butterfly weed, butter beans, German green tomatoes, and other heirlooms grown by gardeners for generations, replaced by genetically engineered varieties.
High-tech patented hybrid varieties are far more profitable for transnational seed companies to produce and sell. These new frankenseeds are bred to perform adequately over a wide geographical area, giving the patent holder a much larger market.
As consumers are losing the freedom to choose what they will buy and grow, thousands of varieties of garden seed are walking the plank, straight into the abyss of extinction. Consider this, in 1981 there were approximately 5,000 vegetable seed varieties available in U.S. catalogs. Today there are less than 500, a 90 percent reduction.
Seeds removed from commercial production are left in private corporate seed banks. Open pollinated seed will not store indefinitely, it must be propagated to ensure its survival. This is an expensive proposal, one not likely to happen in the world of capital consolidation and wide profit margins.
The more likely scenario is the “unprofitable” heirloom seeds will be allowed to expire and patented hybrids will take their place. Seed biodiversity will be compromised globally, while the corporate stranglehold tightens around the throat of the consumer.
Kent Whealey, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange, says “Few gardeners comprehend the true scope of their garden heritage or how much is in immediate danger of being lost forever.”
Taking the ball and going home
Like the glaciers that rolled across North America, heaving and prying the earth into new forms, giant transnational seed companies are changing the face of gardening as it once was. What’s left behind is the product of a destructive force to be sure, but something beautiful and promising also remains.
Across the globe people are growing and saving heirloom seeds, ensuring the promise of diversity and heritage for future generations. Groups like Seed Savers Exchange are blooming in the remains of corporate devastation. Some of these organizations are large, offering seeds from across the globe. Others are neighborhood and regional groups saving and trading local favorites. Whatever their size, they are dedicated to preserving the earth’s biodiversity.
All it takes to form a seed saving club is for one neighbor to pick up the phone and say to another, “Do you want to trade some seeds this year?” There you have it, a seed saving club.
Imagine if one neighbor called another neighbor and that neighbor called yet another, and so on. The next thing you know black gardeners and white gardeners, southern growers and northern growers, farmers and city folk, church goers and non-church goers, would be united in an effort to prevent the extermination of thousands of varieties of seed. What a beautiful thing it would be.
Before you could shake a dollar at it, the landscape of the nursery trade would change. It’s the age old law of supply and demand, if no one wants patented hybrids, then they become unprofitable in short order. The reigning corporate kings of the gardening game would be forced to take their ball and go home, leaving consumers free to choose a more sustainable pastime.
It could happen.
Ollie ollie oxen free
My asparagus roots showed up two days before Thanksgiving. Several inches of snow blanketed the ground and the temperature hadn’t risen above the single digits for days. I decided against planting them directly in the ground and mulching over the top as instructed by the Gurney’s representative. I didn’t feel like shoveling all that snow. Instead I tossed them in the back of the refrigerator to wait for spring.
While winter wore on I visited the Seed Savers Exchange website (www.seedsavers.org), several times. I filled out the catalog request and spent time checking out the site. It is chock full of information and inspiration. There’s an online catalog bursting with heirlooms I’ve never heard of. I’m not sure what lazy housewife beans are, but you can be sure I’m going to get some.
I asked my neighbors to save seeds this year. We’ll get together in the fall for a harvest celebration and share our gardening glories and stories. You can bet there’ll be a tale behind every seed saved. I hope I hear them all.
Transnational corporations can’t build communities, they can’t celebrate identity. Only we can do that, and we can do it with every seed we plant.