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Where Have All the Early Girls Gone?
By Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm
March 29, 2010
Over the last week we planted our first block of tomatoes at Full Belly Farm, about five acres of many varieties, all transplanted into the soil after being tended carefully in the greenhouse. If all goes well, these tomatoes will be ready for harvest the first week of July. We grow several varieties of cherry tomatoes, some Roma-types, and lot of heirlooms. We save the heirloom seeds from the previous year’s plants and include varieties like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Marvel Stripes. We aren’t growing our usual complement of Early Girls this year, usually one of our standbys. The Early Girl is a tomato with quintessential old-fashioned tomato flavor, bright red color and high yield.
The ordering of seeds isn’t one of my jobs, but I often overhear Andrew and Rich working the phones, or see them checking inventory, and I know that with the dozens of varieties that we grow, ordering the seeds is not a task to be taken lightly: the seeds have to be here when the window of opportunity opens and everything is ready for planting—the beds are prepped, the weather is right, the crew is ready.
Every year, there are some varieties of seed that we have grown and liked that become unavailable. Sometimes varieties are discontinued altogether because the market for them simply isn’t large enough. Organic growers are especially vulnerable. We can use conventionally grown seed only if there is not an organically grown alternative and we cannot use seed that has been treated with chemicals to prevent it from rotting in the soil.
The Early Girl is such an icon among tomato varieties that I was surprised when I heard Andrew worrying that he couldn’t get untreated seed. Our suppliers were saying that Seminis, the holder of the Early Girl patent, seemed to be antagonistic towards selling seeds in small lots, and seemed to no longer be servicing the organic market. Although a standard for the truck farmer and the home garden, the Early Girl apparently wasn’t as good for the supermarket in which tomatoes are picked ‘mature green’ and ripened in a CO2 room. As the story continued to unfold, we found out that seeds for one of our favorite melons, the Ambrosia melon, were also impossible to find.
The seed brokers were pointing at the purchase, for $1.4 billion, in 2005 of Seminis by Monsanto. At the time of its purchase, Seminis controlled 40% of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20% of the world market. Seminis didn’t just sell seeds, they also had a very strong in-house breeding program, supplying the genetics for 55% of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85% of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas. With the purchase of Seminis, Monsanto became the world’s largest seed company—first in vegetables and fruits, second in agronomic crops, and the world’s third largest agrochemical company.
The possibility that Seminis would drop many of the varieties that regional farmers depend on was predicted by plant breeders and seed brokers ever since the news of the Monsanto purchase, and unfortunately, those fears seem to be coming true. In addition, many experts in the seed industry expect to see Monsanto slowly start building the market for genetically engineered fruits and vegetables. As Rob Johnston, of Johnny’s Selected Seeds (one of Full Belly’s favorite seed sources, unusual in that they still maintain an in-house breeding program) said, “I worry about the future of the Seminis breeding programs and that Monsanto will curtail creative directions and focus on a biotech agenda.”
While there may not be immediate replacements for many of the vegetable varieties now owned by Monsanto the experience of this year made us reflect on the need to move our business away from Monsanto varieties, to the extent that it is possible. Regardless of one’s feelings about genetically engineered seeds, the stories of the Early Girl tomato and the Ambrosia melon offer a history worth tracing in the continuing trend of food industry consolidation, a lesson that should give everyone pause as we consider the future of seeds.