George Ball Jr. Photo courtesy of Burpee Seed Company
Soon after the holiday season officially ended I started to receive a lot of questions about seed buying, seed catalogs and seed sources. The questions came through email, on Facebook and through Twitter. The number of questions wasn't what was surprising, what struck me was the number of people asking me if I "trust" Burpee seeds. The other thing people want to know was whether Burpee seeds is owned by Monsanto.
This week I had the opportunity to talk to George Ball owner of the W. Atlee Burpee Company over the phone for an hour. The conversation ranged from his family's history in horticulture, his work history, heirloom seeds, seed companies, sausage and tomato sauce making.
Let's start at the beginning. Burpee's trust problem seems to stem from the Safe Seed Pledge by the Council of Responsible Genetics. The Safe Seed Pledge asks seed companies to take an oath to "not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants." There is an accompanying list of seed companies that have taken this pledge; the W. Atlee Burpee & Company is noticeably absent. I'll get to that later. I've blogged before about my dislike for the list, mostly because the information can be dated and inaccurate as it jumps around the web.
George Ball Jr. was born near Chicago in 1951. A scion of a well-known seed business (Ball Horticulture Co.) himself, he currently owns what is arguably America's most recognized seed company. He became heard of Burpee in 1991. In his youth he worked for PanAmerican Seeds, a subsidiary company of the Ball Horticulture Co., in West Chicago. He says he worked mostly in the production of potatoes and flowers in Honduras, Mexico and Costa Rica.
At one point the PetoSeed Company was owned by his father and his uncle. The PetoSeed Company was spun off from Peto-Hollar Seed Co. A joint venture between Victor E. Hollar & Howard B. Peto, both gentlemen seem to at one point be employed by Burpee. Mr. Ball informs me that Mr. Peto left Burpee because he wanted to concentrate on the more technical aspects of tomato production and Burpee wanted to focus on the home gardener. PetoSeed started working in hybrid vegetables in the 1950s. PetoSeed was eventually purchased by Seminis, which was itself eventually purchased by Monsanto. Here is where a lot of gardeners, bloggers, writers and activists usually make the erroneous connection between Burpee and Monsanto.
"I don't work for Monsanto, they don't own Burpee," Ball said. "If people have a problem with Monsanto they should take it up with Monsanto."
Mr. Ball seems remarkably at ease with the knowledge that being a large seed company will make it the target of undue criticism and wild speculation. In our conversation he seems not only protective of his company, but of the history behind the seed company that this year turns 135 years old.
Are big seed companies bad? Should we hold Burpee's success against it? After all, it was once a small seed company too. In his teenage years Burpee's namesake bred poultry and Mr. Ball informs me that he got into the seed business after discussions with farmers who were having trouble with seeds brought from Europe because they had been acclimated to growing in vastly different conditions. This lead to Burpee developing hybrids for American farmers and gardeners.
"In the course of 150 years we [Americans] have done a lot of good things," says Barbara Melera, owner of the D. Landreth Seed Company. "Burpee is part of our history we can be proud of. We should cherish it like Monticello and the Washington Monument."
The Safe Seed Pledge
One of the questions that a reader wanted to know about Burpee was why it hadn't signed the Safe Seed Pledge. Mr. Ball says he hadn't heard of it or of the organization behind it. He says he has no interest in dignifying something if he doesn't know who is on the other end of the paper. Now that he had heard of it would he consider singing it? "It sounds creepy-I don't believe in lists," he said. "I don't buy genetically modified seeds; I don't sell genetically modified seeds." He said he buys seeds from Seminis because the genetics are great because they come from the PetoSeeds lines.
During the course of our conversation we talked about heirlooms and their current popularity with everyone from gardeners to foodies. I've blogged here about how gardeners sometimes make the mistake of confusing GMOs with hybrids and in doing so eliminate some really good plants from their gardens. I like an even mix of older varieties and new plants in my garden, Mr. Ball seems to favor hybrids for their productivity.
While he appreciates heirloom plants, he doesn't romanticize them like I sometimes do. He points out that the "true" heirlooms are those of the Native American crops. He says that true European heirlooms are "jealously" guarded by families and are no more likely to be available on the market than a piece of furniture handed down through generations. According to Mr. Ball, what we call hybrids are really market varieties developed during Industrialization when it became necessary to feed lots more people who were moving into cities and towns. Yes, these market varieties of fruits and vegetables have some age, but that we shouldn't confuse them with true heirlooms, which only become widely available when the family that was growing them dies out.
I spoke to some experts in the seed business to try to understand why there's this undercurrent of distrust for the man. I poked, prodded, baited and promises anonymity in exchange for a morsel of gossip that would help me understand why some people are having trouble trusting him. When I spoke with Barbara Melera she stated that "few people are more honorable than George." This was the consensus among his colleagues and competitors that I spoke to.
Even Google can't prove much negative to write about. Could potential customers be influence by a handful of negative posts on blogs? "George Ball - Deceitful, Greedy, Inept?" reads the title of a '07 post by noted feminist Susan Harris on the blog Garden Rant. The post doesn't answer the provocative question it poses in the title about Mr. Ball. That job is left to the commenters, one of who takes issues with the libelous post title. The only negative things written about Mr. Ball that Google is likely to return are articles and posts over Heronswood Nursery, which have nothing to do with the seed business.
"I work all day, people can call me," Ball says with a laugh. "My picture is in the catalog."
I checked and he's not in the 2011 catalog, but he was in the 2010 catalog. But has a good point, if I was able to reach him and talk with him for an hour why can't people who have issues with him do the same? During our conversation I found him to be personable, self-aware and even a little self-deprecating. A man who really knows his tomatoes, you can practically hear him salivating over the phone when he talks about making tomato sauce. I've been a Burpee customer since I was a teenager and I will probably continue to do so. Speaking to his colleagues and competitors whatever fear I may have had about Burpee selling GMO seeds has be erased. It is almost impossible for a seed company to sell such seeds to home gardeners. Everyone in the business I spoke to says it is cost prohibitive and would basically guarantee the demise of a seed company. So, to answer the question in this post title, yes we can trust Burpee seeds. We haven't been given a reason not to.
Visit the mrbrownthumb urban gardening blog for more posts on seeds, seed companies, seed saving and seed starting.
"Like" my Facebook gardening page and subscribe to my gardening videos on YouTube where you can find short videos on seed saving and previous garden shows.