Can You Trust Burpee Seeds?

Can You Trust Burpee Seeds?
George-Ball-Jr-Burpee-Seed-Company.png
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. 
History
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. 
Heirlooms
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. 
Trust

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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. 
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Comments

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  • He sounds like a cool guy. I also buy Burpee seeds. I think some people are just a little overboard with the whole GMOs in seeds sold to home gardeners. So THANK YOU most of all for pointing out hybrid is not a synonym for GMOs! And it's good to read even the companies singled out as "bad" because they buy from companies who sell GMO seed, that they don't sell it to home gardeners. Also, being a bit of an iconoclast, I fully support someone not signing a pledge list even if they qualify to do so.

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    He does sounds like a cool guy. He was totally different than I was expecting.Maybe his resemblance to "Charles Widmore" on LOST made me think he was going to be a bad guy? I don't know. Anyway, we talked a bit about Chicago and he mentioned a restaurant in my area, which really surprised me. There's a whole section that I left out about the pledge because it made the post even longer than the two pages it already was. I think I'll post that as a single post.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Do! Post about the pledge.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I have to say I'm becomming pretty overwhelmed at the thought of buying seeds this year. While it used to be a pleasure, a shopping spree, it's now started to feel like I'm dodging land mines. Here I am trying to grow my own food, buying seed to start plants myself to ensure they're chemical free, from mostly smaller seed companies...from an environmental perspective, this all seems good! But now I'm worried I'm somehow accidently supporting Monsanto, or unfair wages in third world countries in the case of hybrid seed production. It's a slippery slope and is, in some ways, taking the fun out of gardening. I have grown Early Girl tomatoes along with many Heirloom varities since I first started gardening. I do it because they are reliable. I'm always thinking, even if these damn Brandywine only produce two tomatoes, I KNOW I'll have plenty from the Early Girl. But now that I've learned they are a Semenis/Monsanto product, I don't feel comfortable growing them. The other really sad part about this is that I remember talking to the lady at one of the seed companies last year who told me that the Semenis company (prior to being bought by Monsanto) has always been devoted to the home gardener and a good group of people to work with. She sort of insinuated they are not happy that Monsanto has stopped production on some of the home gardener favorite seeds.

    I've bought Burpee seeds mainly because they have huge stands at the entrance of Menards and they lure me in like candy as soon as I walk through the door. But my problem with them is that last year I ordered some exotic looking petunias from their website. The packet only came with 10 and out of that, only 1 germinated. And they were expensive!

  • In reply to ginthom:

    Gina, I love the newish avatar. :0) Mr. Ball talked about Brandywine and he says his Brandyboy is equal if not better to Brandywine. According to Mr. Ball he's done blind tastes with people from Organic Gardening and most of the time Brandyboy won.

    I know what you mean about avoiding Seminis and Monsanto, but at this point I don't think we can. Seed companies who aren't growing their own seeds all get the seeds from the same places. The difference in the seed is in the marketing and packaging.

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    In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    Buy from Seeds of Change or other such organic seed companies. Or buy organic seedlings. They are garunteed to have no GM

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    In reply to Aubrey Yarper:

    Although it is unlikely that organic is a GMO, it is possible. Not all GMOs have the RR gene and can be called organic.

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    In reply to Aubrey Yarper:

    seeds of change is owned by monsanto

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    In reply to ginthom:

    Don't buy any plants or seeds from any big box stores, especially the home improvement stores. They are full of pesticides and often times GMO.

  • In reply to MrBrownThumb:

    I gotta say that I generally don't ever buy Burpee seeds unless they are really really on sale. I don't know if I'm being fair in my avoidance of Burpee or not. Maybe I'm just afraid of them because they are more connected with Monsanto than one of the small seed companies might be. Maybe I hold their big company status against them, assuming that all big companies are bad. I really don't know what to think.

    But I would like to hear more about what he said about the Safe Seed Pledge. I'm still skeptical about Burpee not signing it, but maybe more details could change my mind. :/ Thanks for this post though. :)

  • In reply to snappyjdog:

    Snappyjdog, I mentioned above that there are only so many suppliers of seeds around the world and unless a company is growing out all of their seed, then everyone pretty much has the same source. Remember last year when that seed buyer mentioned not being able to pinpoint where the seeds are coming from because they come from wholesalers?

    Pretty much everything he said about the pledge I posted. He said he hadn't heard of the Council for Responsible Genetics or who was behind it. That's pretty much my issue with them too.

  • In reply to snappyjdog:

    Burpee and I go way back, since a lot of the seeds for the family vegetable and flower gardens when I was a kid came from there. We always looked forward to the arrival of our W. Atlee Burpee seed catalog. Growing up in a gardening family, it was a household name. I think Mr. Ball is a stand-up guy whose word can be trusted.

    I completely understand the dilema regarding the hybrids Seminis sells. Many of them are very popular, and with good reason - they produce well, they have nice flavor, and they can be very reliable and often even disease-resistant. I don't buy from Burpee anymore because I don't want to even indirectly support Monsanto through Seminis seeds, and in protest of how Monsanto has gobbled up so much of the seed industry, and well, you, manny of your other readers, and probably even Mr. Ball know the rest about why I don't want to support Monsanto, even indirectly.

    Instead of seeing it as who I don't buy from, I prefer to see it as who I choose to support. For me, at this time in history, my support will continue to go to much smaller seed companies who are as local as possible, and whenever possible they'll be organic. Burpee will survive without me, just like Jewel and Dominicks will survive now that my family's meats and eggs come directly from our farmer, and most of our other food comes from a mom-and-pop, a health-food store, a farmers market, or our garden.

    Good post MBT. Thank you for your investigative reporting and for going straight to the source, and thank you Mr. Ball for speaking about this!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    Thanks for such a thoughtful comment!

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    When you think about it, aren't all garden plants "genetically modified" in some sense? It dates back to the beginning of agriculture, when people first started selecting the better fruits and flowers to plant for next year's crop. And it continued when Gregor Mendel studied the principles of genetics that explain hybridization. We can do these things ourselves, in our own back yards. Hardly unnatural, IMHO.

  • In reply to CCWriter:

    If you mean if they're all hybridized, then yes, I totally agree with you. Which is why I have a problem trying to make hybrids the bad guys when talking about plants and seeds.

  • In reply to CCWriter:

    Below is a copy of my 4/6/11 email to Burpee.com customer service. I hope to post their reply here. -GA
    --------
    After reading Mr. Ball's clarification on Burpee's website, I have a question about Burpee & genetically modified (GM) plants & gardens.

    By GM, I mean using gene splicing technology to alter target DNA by lab gene modification. I mean the method where genes from one plant are inserted into genes of a different species of plant, to produce transgenetic traits. By GM, i do NOT mean traditional cross-pollination in the field, within a species, to produce hybrid vigor by combining traits from both parents within the same species.

    Mr. Ball's statement says that Burpee doesn't sell GMO seed, and never will. But does Burpee take steps to ensure that source plant material coming from Semini or other companies isn't GM? I.e. ensure by active inquiry, policy or contract?

    My first concern is that a Monsanto owned company (like Semini) may supply Burpee with source GM plants or seed. Burpee may unknowingly cross-pollinate those plants with their own non-GM plants. This could be done within the same species in the field, using traditional hybrid creation methods. Result? Burpee could sell their seeds to gardeners and honestly say that they're not Burpee GM. Technically they're just a Burpee hybrid. But they now contain GM genes & DNA that were introduced upstream, before such material ever reached Burpee's hands.

    Analogy: an American company assembles products from material made in China & Korea, then labels the final product 'Made In America'.

    My second concern is that Mr. Ball's statement seems dismissive, not really concerned about customer concerns over GM in the garden. When he addresses things like the "safe seed pledge" on the web, it sounds like he wouldn't even consider signing it. He gives a great history lesson on the Burpee seed company, but I'm left unconvinced that he appreciates the growing concern in America over the GM phenomena & health dangers. This at a time when most commercial corn & soy in America is GM (i.e. Roundup ready, or producing it's own insecticide). This week a Drudgereport article announces they've inserted human genes into cows to produce human breast milk. They've created salmon with eel genes, that may wipe out unmodified salmon in a few generations, and they're fighting to prevent the product from being identified as GM in our grocery stores. Spider Goats are goats with spider genes. They've been bred for milk that is harvested for high tech weapons and body armor, cut & paste link here: (http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/CuttingEdge/story?id=98095&page=1). Bill Gates & others are talking about introducing vaccines into food staples. This may sound Orwellian or just laughable to many people, but it's all true and many Americans are waking up to the concerns, as Europe already has.

    I grew up in the 50's & 60's in San Diego CA, waiting for our Burpee seed catalog and planting your seeds every year. I'm in my fifties now with grand children. Before I place more seed orders with Burpee, I would like a stronger assurance that Burpee doesn't use 3rd party source material (e.g. from Semini or others) that may be genetically modified through high tech, trans-species, gene splicing lab methods. I'd like to know Burpee takes active steps to prohibit the upstream introduction of GM material into their seed products, perhaps unbeknownst to their own seed producers. And I'd like to see Burpee sign the "safe seed pledge", or make an equivalent promise to their customers.

    Last spring I called Burpee's customer service. I conveyed some of these concerns, and suggested your 2011 catalog might do well to have some statement in their about Burpee's stance & precautions regarding GM plants & seeds. I see nothing like that in this year's catalog. Don't you realize that much of the growing boom in heirloom seed products stems from the public's awareness & fear of GM in their home gardens? Commercials abound on cable TV news these days, for survival seed bank companies selling only 'heirloom, open-pollinated, NON-GMO seed products'. There's a market reason for this.. real or imagined, and I'm not getting the impression that Burpee appreciates this fact. We vote with our dollars in America. I for one want to actively oppose the activities & encroachment by the company that brought us Agent Orange: Monsanto. One of your suppliers, Seminis, is owned by Monsanto. This is disturbing. The fact that other big seed companies also patronize Seminis brings me no comfort.

    Thank you for listening, and thanks in advance for your response. My family & I are hoping to continue as loyal Burpee Seed customers!

    -Greg Anderson

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    In reply to ganderson:

    Hear, hear! Greg, you addressed my concerns with the post 100%. I would like to say that I was put off by Mr. Ball's dismissive tone as well. Maybe he is not educated on the dangers of GMOs, but the world is coming around to it quite rapidly. If he wants Burpee seeds to remain competitive, he might at least stop being dismissive. We who grow our own food do so mostly for the health benefits. GMOs are unhealthy, they cause cancer in every animal tested... no thank you. I will continue to remain diligent in my quest for non-GM seeds (and I do understand the difference between GM and hybrid) and will only support companies that are in harmony with that.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to CCWriter:

    vertical manipulation such as hybridization is a natural process and nothing more than selective breeding that is speeded up. Horizontal manipulation -genetic modification on the other hand is taking genetic material from different species and corrupting the DNA chain of another organism, and creating something that could never possibly occur in nature. It is a mutant with mostly unknown long term effect on its environment or those who consume it.

  • In reply to snappyjdog:

    Just to clarify, I wasn't trying to say Monsanto had "gobbled up" Burpee, in case it sounded like that. I only meant seed companies Monsanto has bought, such as Seminis.

  • fb_avatar

    I agree with Greg Anderson that the concern is that Burpee is purchasing seed from a company owned by Monsanto. The cost argument doesn't hold water because if Monsanto wants to spread GMO and contaminate all the other available seed in individual gardens - which may well end up being the ONLY seed that is not GMO - I doubt they'd really care what they cost.

    Add to that the risk that they might include their new terminator gene technology in the seeds that is another HUGE risk. What if these seeds cross with many other plants and sterilize them too? Imagine not being able to ever save seed to plant again. THAT is a real possibility.

    I for one do not wish to consume any GMO products and to really be able to do that basically means anything I eat I need to grow or buy from someone I trust. IMHO, it is unwise to trust someone who is doing business with Monsanto.

    I encourage anyone who is not aware of the many evils Monsanto perpetrates to do some research. They include prosecuting farmers whose fields have been contaminated with their seed - something I have not thought of any way those farmers could prevent.

  • As a novice gardener, I constantly see Facebook comments asking each seed company if they sell GMO seeds. Of course the answer is always no, as GMO seeds are expensive and not sold to the retail home garden market. They require licensing agreements, have never seen that at the Burpees stand at Menards.

    Here we have Greg Anderson commenting "By GM, I mean using gene splicing technology to alter target DNA by lab gene modification. I mean the method where genes from one plant are inserted into genes of a different species of plant, to produce transgenetic traits."

    I am surprised if mixing the genes of plants is what really concerns people, or if that is even the bulk of what really happens in creating GMO plants.

    What bothers me is the addition of Animal genes into Plant DNA. That is what is different about laboratory GMO versus good old fashioned hybrids.

    The Safe Seed Pledge only states the company does not intentionally sell GMO seeds, it does not address whether the company does business with Monsanto or subsidiaries, or pays a living wage.

  • fb_avatar

    I just read the article "Burpee, GMO And Monsanto Rumors Put To Rest" authored by George Ball - Burpee Chairman and CEO.

    The article states, "... We do purchase a small number of seeds from the garden seed department of Seminis, a Monsanto subsidiary, and so do our biggest competitors."

    Although GMOs and Monsanto are a concern to me... my concern here is NOT that W. Atlee Burpee & Co. isn't owned by Monsanto (Seminis) or that the seeds are non-GMO, but that the seeds are sourced from a company I DO NOT WISH TO SUPPORT.

    Does anyone know if there is a list of seeds that are sourced from Seminis? I purchased some and DO NOT wish to support any subsidiary of Monsanto.

  • fb_avatar

    You cannot trust Burpee because they misplace their trust in Seminis, a Monsanto company for some of their "garden seeds." In reality, it is still supporting Monsanto's mission of ultimate poisoning and control of the food supply. Seminis is a large supplier of GMO seed, and contamination is inevitable. I have written to Burpee to find out which of their seeds come from that company. They refuse to disclose which ones do. So, until Burpee comes clean and gives us the information we need to make an informed decision, they are not trustworthy. What are you hiding Burpee? Buy your garden seeds, or any seeds from a reputable supplier who sells certified organic or certified non-GMO. Saying they are non-GMO is worthless without the certification.

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