By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
My favorite story from Deeply Rooted – Lisa Hamilton's inspiring, beautifully written book – is about retired plant breeder and former farmer Mat Kolding, who was walking through a North Dakota farmer's field one year when disease was decimating the wheat crop. Among an estimated 5 million plants in the 40-acre field, "There was a plant shouting, Here I am! Take me!" said Kolding. After growing out and selecting from this plant's progeny for 10 years, Kolding sent seed to the North Dakota Farm Breeder Club, whose members continued improving the crop, ending up with a high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat with quality for artisan bakers' products.
"If you listen to the plants, they'll tell you a lot," Kolding said.
Coincidentally, MOFGA's demonstration gardens coordinator Jack Kertesz introduced me to the ideas of the late plant breeder Derald Langham, profiled in Gardening from the Heart – Why Gardeners Garden, by Carol Olwell. An expert in corn, sesame and other crops, and holder of two Ph.D.s (one from Cornell in plant genetics; a second in humanities), Langham's first job after graduate school was breeding crops to feed the people of Venezuela – which, shortly after Langham moved there, had much of its food supply cut off as imports ceased during World War II. Langham focused on sesame, with its 50 percent oil, 26 percent protein and rich store of vitamins and minerals.
The similarity between Kolding and Langham's methods for finding desirable plants in a field of thousands or millions is striking: "I would walk down to the fields before sunrise and empty myself of any knowledge of the plants that I had …" Langham said. "Then I'd walk into a field of five thousand segregated populations of sesame and say, 'I need to know which ones of you have the highest oil, and which ones will yield the best, and which ones will the farmer really want,' and so on. And wherever I was stopped in the field by the sesame itself, I would just collect seed. It worked beautifully …
"A sesame can, by its own mind, wake up the genes that it needs to wake up, and make gene teams to do specific things," he said.
In 1972, writes Olwell, Langham received the Order of Merit of Performance from the President of Venezuela, the highest honor ever given to a foreigner by the Venezuelan government, acknowledging his development of many crops for the country.
That idea of waking up genes motivates the Podoll family of North Dakota (one of three farm families covered in Deeply Rooted) to encourage tomato diseases in their seed selection garden – growing many tomato varieties in the same place annually, mulching with diseased plants, surrounding the plot with taller crops to reduce air movement, even keeping the area humid with a sprinkler – in order to force plants to "draw on their genetic memory" to resist pathogens. After this soggy summer, we'll doubtless be looking to the Podolls' selections to help us through future years of disease-promoting weather.
Wandering around the Common Ground Country Fair, among some 50,000 to 60,000 fairgoers and an abundant display of organic agriculture, I feel like Kolding and Langham must have felt when they walked through fields of wheat and sesame, keeping their minds open to sensing awakened genes and gene teams. The potential, the positive energy, the mutual search for increasingly organic lives, the likelihood that, by planting ourselves on MOFGA's educational site for three days, we'll benefit from one another's awakened genes – this is the stuff of Common Ground.
Enjoy the Fair, free your mind and find what you really want.