Frank Morton is a plant breeder and founder of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon. He and his family supply many of the unique varieties in the High Mowing catalog.
On a spring day in the early 1980’s, a curious young salad grower found himself looking at one red lettuce seedling in a sea of flats filled with tender green oakleaf. A novice seed saver at the time, Frank Morton left this plant for seed, hoping to reproduce this unique cross of red romaine and green oakleaf. As he recounts this first experience with breeding, he recalls that what came up when these seeds were planted the following season was “just as varied as the rainbow.” The outcome was seemingly a random combination of all traits of the parent varieties, twenty-three kinds of lettuce in all. Frank Morton was taken by the evidence of what had previously been missing in his work, and that first experiment launched a lifetime of creativity in classical breeding.
Wild Garden Seed Bears Fruit
Frank and Karen Morton are the dynamic duo behind Wild Garden Seed, one of the finest producers of regionally-adapted, open-pollinated organic seeds. Situated along the winding Mary’s River outside of Philomath, Oregon, Wild Garden Seed has partnered with Gathering Together Farm, a neighboring vegetable operation that has joined in providing space and people power for Frank’s growing seed production. In total, this collaborative effort tends over 50 acres of fresh market vegetables and seed crops. During the heart of the growing season, 65 employees (aka the Agents of Change) still enjoy a work-day tradition of group meals crafted with their own produce. Frank and Karen, along with their sons Taj and Kit, coordinate all aspects of seed production, harvest, cleaning, and marketing.
Since his auspicious first encounter with seed breeding, Frank has gone on to breed hundreds of named varieties, available directly from Wild Garden Seeds and through a limited number of lucky seed companies like High Mowing Organic Seeds. For over two decades, Frank and Karen balanced time between their salad business and seed breeding and production. Lettuce breeding became a way to make new products available for their commercial salad sales. As Frank puts it, “right away the goal was to create something beautiful that tasted good.” His breeding generated such interest in these unique varieties that Karen and Frank published their first seed catalog on a typewriter in 1994. By 2001, this hardworking family was ready to focus full time on seed breeding and production.
A Continuing Evolution
In over thirty years of seed production, Frank’s breeding goals have developed a comprehensive depth rarely seen in even the highest ranking academic circles. Frank and Karen’s home has been described to me as having “a breeding project every square foot.” With his experience as a grower, Frank spent his early years focusing on the qualities of lettuce, studying the tastes, shapes, thickness, heft, and colors that worked for his market. He quickly realized the value of season extension in his northern climate and began selecting varieties that performed well in the early and late parts of the growing season. Slowly Frank started to think about disease, launching extensive disease trials in order to select for resistance traits in his production. All of this is part of Frank’s devotion to his mission of fostering regional adaptation in seed breeding.
These days Frank likes to say he’s breeding for nutrition. With variety names like Flashy Trout Back and Hyper Red Rumple Waved, one can quickly see the emphasis on colors. Frank tells me he’s “always had an intuitive sense that all those colors were good for you.” New research has confirmed just that. “By selecting for intense pigmentation, you’re also selecting for antioxidant content.”
Never one to stagnate, Frank is embarking on what he views as a decisive step forward in seed breeding. Envisioning the development of what he calls “an ecological sophistication to our adaptation work,” Frank hopes to bring forth a new effort in selecting for “underground traits and the corresponding interaction with microbial communities, with the intent being disease and pest resistance and efficient nutrient scavenging.”
For example, Frank describes to me his consideration of root hair length in seedlings as an attractant for beneficial soil life. He’d like to take this concept further by studying – and ultimately selecting for – the qualities in plants that affect interactions with pests, disease, and soil microbial life. Frank is the first to admit the limitations of his field work. “If I had the tools to do this, I would. The next generation will have the tools.” Given this challenge, Frank stresses the importance of collaboration between different facets of the plant and soil science community – we need to become involved in different fields to get the big picture, “like a microbiologist doing plant breeding work.”
Of course there’s more to the story about Frank Morton. Well known for his spirited essays espousing the importance of open-source germplasm, the dangers of genetic engineering, and the value of regionally-adapted genetics, Frank is a man committed to his values with dynamic enthusiasm to match. His writing takes the form of a cogent narrative with the balanced approach of a veteran to this noble cause. Along with the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance, the Sierra Club, and your friends at High Mowing Organic Seeds, Frank is an active participant in the continuing legal battle with Monsanto and the USDA regulatory agency APHIS for failure to follow federal law when it deregulated genetically modified sugar beets in 2005. Frank also stands with us as a founding member of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), an organization seeking to revitalize public plant breeding and regain seed rights for the commons.
Frank’s first red lettuce seedling has taken its place in his comprehensive catalog; these days it is named Oaky Red Splash, and is available by mail order only. Frank’s wife and children have played their respective roles in the story, and continue to be both the foundation and inspiration for his work. And Frank Morton’s curiosity is alive and well. As the threats of biotechnology, changing climates, and plant patents loom, Frank’s innovative work seems more relevant than ever.
Below are the varieties that we have gotten from Frank and Wild Garden Seeds over the years: