Frank Morton

Spring 2007
Frank Morton enjoys a conversation with Farmer to Farmer participants. English photo.

Frank Morton has been breeding and experimenting with vegetables for some 25 years. Varieties that grow well under organic cultivation on both coasts are offered in quantities of ½ ounce or more in his Wild Garden Seed catalog from Gathering Together Farm, PO Box 1509, Philomath, OR 97370 ( Morton was the keynote speaker at MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer to Farmer Conference last November.

“As I talk about the seed of our futures, I’m going to be talking about the origins of things – of ideas, of species,” said Frank Morton during his keynote speech. “Keep in mind the variety of something has the potential to be a species given enough isolation, time and environmental influence.”

He noted that language, like genes, carries information from one generation to the next in a code. Thus he uses words carefully and notes that a word can have different meanings in different contexts – as genes can have different expressions under different environmental conditions.

“We used to think one gene coded for one protein, and that those proteins… make our bodies structurally, and they make the enzymes that control everything that happens in our bodies.” This “central dogma” of Watson and Crick changed after the Human Genome Project showed that we don’t have nearly as many genes as required for a one-to-one correlation between genes and proteins. Instead, one gene can code for more than one protein, and much of this phenomenon is still a mystery.

Morton believes that “the way people and organisms as a whole work has a lot of correlation to the way enzymes work.” Enzymes have a particular shape in cells, but “when the thing that that enzyme is going to work on connects with it, the shape of the enzyme changes,” and that change in shape makes the enzyme functional.

Similarly, humans, birds and insects unite things that would not come together otherwise, changing their behavior and creating the world around us, “which is so different from the world at the beginning.”

Biotech Creates Dead Seeds

“We organic people are going to have to take care of our own needs,” said Morton, “because nobody else has us as the center of interest, other than us.” Others may see us only in terms of their own profit.

“We see biotech companies who want to be let in [to organic], and they want us to think that the seeds that they are providing for us are no different than the seeds we’ve been using for 10,000 years—that it’s all genetic manipulation…” But the genetic manipulation done by biotech companies creates something they call intellectual property and gives the company exclusive rights to that genetic information. “Once something has been bioengineered, from an adaptive standpoint on organic farms, that seed is dead,” said Morton. “Any seed that comes from a biotech company cannot adapt locally, because you are not allowed to adapt it, even if you wanted to … From a genetic standpoint, that seed is dead … It’s not going to change to suit your needs … I don’t care how useful it is.”

The seed that Morton likes to grow, sell and plant “is totally alive. It has not stopped. It’s still moving.”

Evolution and Our Impact: Species Coupling

Morton thinks that the concept of plant varieties may be ephemeral. “Varieties do not stay the same, no matter what. Every time you plant a seed and it grows in the environment, that plant is receiving signals from the environment” that affect not just the plant, but the next generation – partly through selection (plants with the right combination of genes will do better than plants with the wrong combinations).

Further, when scientists revealed the first plant genome, of Arabadopsis, they were surprised at how many genes it had – more than apparently required for the number of proteins in the plant. “How come we have more protein than we have genes, and how come plants have more genes than they have proteins?” Morton asked. Scientists now realize that most genes in plants are chemically turned off when they have a methyl [CH3] group attached.

Morton gave the example of two identical radish plants, one growing in “paradise” with no pests; the other with caterpillars chomping its leaves. When seeds from those plants are sown, “the genetics have not changed. The same genes that went into the first generation are going into the next generation,” but the progeny of the chewed radish has more trichomes (hairs) on its leaves. So the density of trichomes can vary from one generation to the next, depending on what the parent plant experienced. “That’s not supposed to happen! That’s Lamarckian [the theory that an organism can acquire traits during its lifetime and pass them to its offspring]!

“It’s not quite like that,” Morton elaborated. “[T]here is a connection between the genetics of the plant and what’s happening in the environment… The environment can remove methyls from the ends of those genes. What was off can now be on.” This “hidden plasticity” of plants explains why flowering plants have been so willing to cooperate with everything in nature. “When flowering plants evolved… insect diversity exploded. And as time went on, diversity of everything exploded…Once plants had flowers, there was a way for insects to interact with the flowers.” Flowers offered insects nectar, and insects spread genes via pollen.

“The coupling of those two species created an ecological union that was hugely powerful and began to change the whole ecology of the earth… This wasn’t the first time this had happened. Species began to get together really early on.” Modern eukaryotic cells have nuclei, mitochondria, flagella and other internal bodies that create proteins by interacting with our genetics—“every one of those little subunits was at one time, we believe, a free-living organism. Through accidents on some level – but actually just by following the rules of thermodynamics – there was a great motivation for this little spirochete bacteria that had a flagella to become part of a larger unit. Once mitochondria moved into cells, we had a powerhouse,” a source of energy.

Another kind of species coupling involves cooperation in the environment, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria forming a relationship with legumes to fix atmospheric nitrogen. “The bacteria’s still a free-living being in the soil, but while it’s free-living it doesn’t fix any nitrogen. The clever plant is perfectly happy to grow without that bacteria, and in a high-nitrogen soil, it doesn’t need that bacteria at all.”

With low levels of soil nitrogen, however, the bacteria-plant combination is more than the two alone. Similarly, when mycorrhizae inoculate plant roots, they help plants resist droughts and obtain phosphorus from the soil. Trees and forests are linked by mycorrhizal networks, and forest trees are linked with meadow grasses through mycorrhizal networks.

This cooperation integrates the best abilities of many kinds together to make something that is thermodynamically more efficient than either thing acting alone. “When I think about evolution,” Morton noted, “what I keep seeing is life is just getting better and better and better at making do with what it can take from the environment. Essentially life is more efficient.”

Creating such efficiencies has created a different world. “The oxygen in the atmosphere is absolutely 100% the result of life and nothing else. The world environment now is more enriched with biologically available nitrogen than it has ever been in the history of planet earth, and there is actually some concern about this. We really do not know what happens to ecosystems when you overfeed them on nitrogen. A lot of this nitrogen is actually coming from agricultural cover crops.”

Citing more connections, Morton noted that just as cows need bacteria to digest food, the leaves of cacao (the source of chocolate) are infiltrated by endophytes, a type of fungus. “What happens when you take away the fungi from a cacao? [I]n its natural environment it will be devastated by pathogens… So just like a cow is not a cow without bacteria, a cacao is not a cacao without its fungi.”

Morton, who has a B.S. in psychology and has “no training whatsoever in genetics or plant physiology or any of the things that people think you have to have to be a plant breeder,” said that he gets most of his information from Science News (available in libraries) and through his good sense of observation. “I work in the wild, I work with plants, I watch insects, I don’t kill anything that I don’t know what it is. And usually the things that I know what they are, that are competing with me, I don’t kill them either. Everybody’s got to eat.

“The story of agriculture,” Morton continued, “is all about species coupling.” We are a powerful species, he said, because a long time ago, someone collected, stored and replanted wheat seed. “Once that happened, the coevolutionary hook was set. The plant said, ‘I got one. I got a cooperator. This is the best thing since honeybees.’”

Over time, people collected from plants that held seeds longest, then seeds that kept for a year in storage, then seeds that did not need three months of chilling before germination, then seeds that yielded more. The combination of these traits “is the basis of agriculture, the basis of our species coupling,” and plants, rather than being complementary to the wild, began to complement us. “Whatever you work with,” Morton believes, “you become a complement to. You become like what you do.”

So, “be careful what you work with because you will become its complement,” he warned. “Like the enzyme and its substrate (what the enzyme works on) have to work together to some degree, but as soon as they begin to work together, they both change shapes to fit nicely, and then the work is done.” That’s how ecology and evolution work. “Species are coupled together, and we become these units that are way bigger than any of the individuals within the units.”

An ecosystem needs organisms with every kind of interest to get all the work done, so “as soon as you start knocking off species in an ecosystem, there’s some kind of work that’s not being done, some kind of efficiency that nature—that is, evolution—had worked out over 3.7 billion years… When you knock a species out of that system, you have just created a thermodynamic inefficiency that wasn’t there before… That’s why simplified monoculture farms are so energy intensive! You simplify it down to the farmer and the crop and a bag of chemicals to keep everything else away. Man, the farmer has got a lot of thermodynamic work to do to create plant growth and hold that system together. You’re making up for all these organisms that you had to run off through your practice of killing everything that you don’t understand. That’s very thermodynamically inefficient and it won’t last, as I’m sure we all know.”

The Future is in Our Hands

“The point of this talk,” Morton explained, “is why I think that our future is in our hands. I don’t think that any corporation has enough money or energy to control the world seed market and keep it together, more than just a tiny blip at a time, and that thing is going to fall apart. I’m not worried about that. Well, I’m sort of worried about it, but I’m not worried about it in terms of the fate of genetics, because the genetics are nice and spread out right now, thank goodness.

“People say, ‘Oh man, 100 years ago there were more varieties than there are now.’ Not really. There were a lot of varieties 100 years ago, but they were all over the planet. They were in every little valley in Afghanistan. They were spread so far that people in this room didn’t have any access to those genetics. The one blessing I can think of about all the travel that happens around the world is that we managed to bring those genetics to places so that things from Afghanistan could meet things from Iran could meet things from Africa could meet things from South America, and whole new ecosystems could begin. There were farm ecosystems based on crop diversity. That’s the nostalgia that we’re really thinking about in the past”– diverse farms with two or three kinds of lettuce, animals, many kinds of plants–better ecosystems than today’s monocultures.

“So the reason that I think that the future is still in our hands is because this is one of the great opportunistic moments in history. Bless the Seed Savers Exchange.” While seeds obtained through SSE may be crossed, “So what?” said Morton. “Sort it out! Sort it out in your location, and you’re going to end up with something better than if it had arrived perfect and you just planted it and went on your merry way.” Cleaning the genetics “will force you to grow your own seed from that, and as soon as you grow your own seed…to clean it up, you’ve begun to adapt that to your place. Your environment has begun to work on that seed on what we call the epigenetic level,” i.e., what part of the DNA is turned on or off.

“Epigenetic control is done by proteins that are controlling which of the DNA is turned on or off,” Morton explained. “But wait a minute! I thought DNA made proteins. You’re telling me that proteins are affecting DNA and turning it off and on? That’s how it works… The environment affects the proteins in the plants, and that can feed all the way back to the genetics that originally created all those proteins, and the message is, ‘We need more of this and less of that; I would do a lot better if I had some red pigment in this ultraviolet environment.’ There are all sorts of epigenetic feedbacks that happen.”

Morton’s Story

Morton became involved in plant breeding when he noticed, among the thousands of green ‘Oakleaf Salad Bowl’ lettuces that he had been planting for years from seed he’d saved, a single red ‘Oak Leaf’ lettuce. “I thought to myself, ‘That is a cross…or an off-type.’ My advisors, if I had had any, would have said, ‘That was an off type. Throw it away.’”

Morton realized that his green ‘Oak Leaf Salad Bowl’ and a red Romaine heirloom called ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ had crossed to make a red ‘Salad Bowl.’ He got 165 seeds from the plant, late in the 1983 season. “It’s a good thing it didn’t pop up in my fall crop or I wouldn’t have gotten any [seed]. Fate.”

He kept the seed, noticing its potential. “I had not yet begun my career as a salad guy; selling salads to restaurants would take off one year later. I was still selling lettuce to supermarkets, of all markets. But I thought I could have something unique here if I saved this. I didn’t know there was already a red ‘Salad Bowl,’ thank goodness. If I had known that a red ‘Salad Bowl’ existed, I might have thought, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t do this…’” Instead he saved and planted the seed, and from “that one single lettuce cross is a range of biodiversity: red ‘Oak Leafs,’ like I had hoped for; green ‘Oak Leaf Romaine’ – that’s a weird thought! And everything in between.”

Morton had noticed ‘Rouge d’Hiver’ in an 1885 catalog, where it was called ‘Red Winter Cos,’ and had found seed and planted it. “So originally the information came from a book – from long ago – that primed my mind.”

Soon after, he met Mark Musick, a founder of Oregon Tilth, who was selling dandelions, lambsquarters, chickweed, shepherd’s purse and arugula to fancy restaurants. “In 1983, to find arugula seed in the U.S., you had to live in an Italian community or been to Europe or something,” said Morton. “Certainly I’d never heard of arugula, nor had I ever heard of ‘Red Russian’ kale. At that time, there was one source of ‘Red Russian’ kale – The Abundant Life Seed Company.”

Musick told Morton that he picked weeds all winter, put them in little bags, packed the bags in an old apple box along with baby food jars of wild mustard flowers, then put the boxes in a cooler. There they stayed until the UPS carried them to the most expensive restaurant in Seattle.” “What’s that cost?” asked Morton. “$2.50 to send.” “What’s it worth?” “Oh, $50.”

Morton decided to do the same, supplying Portland restaurants. “I lived 3 miles up a mountain, at a place with no phone, no electricity. The UPS truck would come to my door, take this stuff to the most expensive restaurant in Portland. All I had to do was drive down to the neighbor’s store and use the pay phone to call and find out how much they wanted. It worked great. Talk about an ecological synergy: It was terrific.” [The price for such greens has come down since.]

Selling salad ingredients enabled Morton to grow many varieties and species in “the most kicking agroecology I could ever imagine… I had read Fukuoka, this crazy idea of natural farming. I had read Mollison and the concept of permaculture. I had read John Jeavons and the concept of doing things in a very dense way, so that there was no empty space. There’s no bare ground in my garden. Everything is covered in plants.”

As he created an agroecosystem that was self-fulfilling in most of the things it needed to thrive and be productive, Morton – also a photographer – began to discover the habits of insects. He noticed a wasp that had been on fennel in the morning moving to a lettuce plant. “And that wasp has his antennae out, over caterpillar scat on this lettuce leaf. Then that wasp just walked right into that head of lettuce … to find that caterpillar. It was my first meeting with a parasitic wasp, a parasitoid… And that wasp went in there and laid its eggs in the caterpillar. Those little baby wasps would hatch out. They’d eat out the inside of the caterpillar, and then they’d emerge as more wasps. Biological pest control. Wow! That’s how I discovered that.” Scientists knew about this behavior, but agriculturalists weren’t using it then.

Last year Morton read in Science News that scientists had wondered why the caterpillar’s immune system didn’t destroy the wasp eggs. They learned that the wasp first injects viral DNA to disable the immune system of the caterpillar so that the eggs can develop. When parasitoid wasps reproduce, bits of viruses are implanted in the ovary of the wasp. “They are functionally part of the tissue of the wasp… Species coupling. Making things happen.”

Change, evolution, efficiency, complexity, beauty and elegance are all related to the coupling of species, said Morton –  getting things to work together, to be more than any of them could be just running on their own DNA. “So that’s why I’m not worried about biotechnology; they don’t have a symbiant…” Instead, the industry wants to control the vertical and the horizontal, who can grow their seeds. “It’s an illusion of control,” Morton said, “but illusions are powerful things” that can create big distortions.

“If we have the illusion that the biotech companies are going to take over the world, we might just let them do it. Then, when it all goes to hell, we’ll be blaming them. We should be blaming ourselves, because we gave our power to them. In every symbiotic relationship, there is the danger of one of the partners either becoming a parasite and not contributing anything, or the danger of them losing their autonomy altogether, like the poor mitochondria that’s become a slave to eukaryotic cells. Mitochondria are not evolving, they’re not going anywhere.

“When you’re hitching up with someone, if you want to continue to influence the future, you don’t want to give away your power. That’s why I have a seed company. I don’t need my seed catalog to make money. I need my seed catalog to maintain my identity. If I did nothing but sell seed to seed companies, which is where about 85% of my income comes from, then you guys would never have invited me here. You wouldn’t know I exist!

“So I created the illusion that I’m a big shot. And here I am. I farm about 7 acres of seed in a given year, and there’s an illusion that I am a really big player in seeds, and that’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of! But I’m playing it for all it’s worth! It’s the only thing I’ve got is my catalog, my words. Words are really, really important.”

Planting Dispersed Power

Noting that this is the 400th anniversary of the writing of Macbeth, for which no intellectual property rights exist, Morton said, “We would not be who we are now without the works of Shakespeare having been reworked for every generation and been updated and adapted to have meaning and effect in the world at the present time. So it is with seeds.”

Imagine, he continued, if someone had stored, perhaps cryogenically, some ‘Lacinato’ kale seeds from Macbeth’s time for 400 years, not letting them reproduce until now. “What are the chances that that ‘Lacinato’ from 400 years ago would be adapted to our purposes, our insects, our particular strains of pathogenic fungi and bacteria that we have now? What are the odds that the architecture of the plant would be what commercial growers need now? ‘Lacinato’ kale has a tendency to form a many-forked body where you get lots of small leaves. That’s not what everybody in this room wants. You would like to have a ‘Lacinato’ with a nice central stem producing a nice head of big leaves that you can make a bunch out of.” If the plant hadn’t been grown for 400 years, people might say, “‘Wow, we’ve got an heirloom from 400 years ago—Isn’t that great?!’ It would have been worthless! Heirlooms aren’t useful because they’re old; heirlooms are useful because they’re constantly updated. That’s why we want to have them in our pool of resources… most serious commercial growers know that heirlooms have a ton of less than adequate traits for modern agriculture. If a tomato is so soft you can’t get it from your farm to the fresh market without bruising it, that’s too heirloom, you might say. Things have to be updated.

“This is why I think that the people in this room, the people that get my seed catalog, the people who care about maintaining power in a dispersed way…it wouldn’t hurt you to grow one thing for yourself to seed, even if it’s just a flower. Just so you know what it’s about. For every thousand people I tell this to, 100 will actually do it. Of that 100, 10 of them will get hooked. That’s why I’m here. I would like to get one person in this room on the idea of keeping some seed, of adapting it to your own purposes, and maintaining it so you can pass it on to your kids.”

Morton thinks that gardeners, especially, should save some seed. “Risks can be taken in gardens that cannot be taken in commercial fields. Commercial fields are all about making money to pay the rent, buy food. Farmers who are working too many hours already all have the same response to me: I don’t need another thing to do! Gardeners, on the other hand, are often looking for another thing to do… for a new variety, a new opportunity, some new twist in their garden to give them a new sense of adventure…

“And so here’s a new twist. Just try this: Find a long, white radish and a round, red radish, grow one of each side by side in the garden [or] in a window pot. Plant it early in the spring so that it has enough time to run its whole life cycle. This should happen with your very earliest planting…” As the radishes grow, “notice how many hairs are on their leaves, what the margins of the leaves look like, what the exact shade of green is, whether it gets spots on it or not. Watch it bolt. Notice whether the stem goes straight up and stays straight up, or whether it goes up and then becomes a snaky kind of thing that falls to the ground. Notice the color of the flowers. Notice the insects that come to the flowers.

“If you get really hot or really cold weather, notice if the colors of anything change. Let those two plants be visited by insects and see which insects come to the flower. Watch them pollinate.”

Eventually, harvest and clean the seed, and put the seed of each plant in its own envelope, writing on the envelope the variety, date planted, date harvested, and interesting observations. “The next year, grow each of those packets out in its own little row and see what comes up, and you will be amazed!”

Likewise, plant a green ‘Oak Leaf’ lettuce and a red ‘Romaine’ lettuce early so that they will bolt. “These are self-pollinating plants, so you’re going to have to coerce them to cross. Take their heads and sort of push them together so that insects can walk from one to the other. Lettuce pollen is kind of sticky. Most lettuce is self-pollinated before it’s even available to be pollinated by anything else. You put those heads together, save seed separately, grow them out next year. You’re going to find crosses.

“In the radish you’re going to see that most of them crossed.” A few that self-pollinated will look like their parents.

With the lettuce, plant a row of each. The row from the red ‘Romaine’ will produce some plants that have red, oak-shaped leaves. The row from the green will produce some red oak shaped leaves. “Essentially that’s how you find the F1. You just made yourself a hybrid!” said Morton. “You’re high tech!”

Plant the hybrids next, save seed from these hybrids, and plant them. “You’re going to see very different things probably, but you’ll be on your way. What comes out of that hybrid is the first view that you will get of the potential that you have created.

“In the lettuce you’re going to see this spectrum of traits in all different kinds of recombinations going from green to red.” Radishes will be pure white and round, or red and long, or pink and long … many different combinations.

When you find combinations of traits that you like, save seeds from those plants. “You will be on your way to creating your own variety of a radish or a lettuce…just keep growing it. All you do is grow what you like. And in about six years, you get to put a name on it, and it’s yours. It might not be a great variety. It might have all sorts of problems to it, because you don’t have enough experience to see problems as they’re developing, but that’s OK. You’ll be on the way.” You’ll understand more than anyone can teach you, if you plant the seed.

“The seed of our futures,” Morton concluded, “comes from seed that we plant today and tomorrow and the next day and the next day. You never stop planting. You never stop selecting. You never stop improving the thing that you’re working with. If you stop working with it, what you like about it will disappear. My friend John Navazio likes to say, ‘Good traits are like good teeth. You ignore them, they will go away.’”

Q & A

When asked about maintaining separation distances between plants during breeding, Morton said that’s for commercial seed. “I grow all kinds of things in my little garden. Sure, crosses occur. You’re selecting every generation. If you see something you don’t like, throw it out. More than likely, though, you’re going to become obsessed. Every time you see one of these accidental crosses, you’re going to realize, that’s new potential.

“All of my projects began originally in a place no bigger than this room. All of my really serious work was done on 3 acres. Now I work on more like 50 acres, so now I can separate things. Once you can separate things, you can think about being a commercial grower. There is no crime in accidental crossing.”

Asked if gardeners should be concerned about invasive species, Morton said that the short-term view relates to the disruption that occurs when invasive species push natives out of existing ecosystems. “That’s a problem. Looked at on the time scale of humanity, that’s how it’s always happened. Wild lettuce has invaded everywhere it’s gone since it left the Mediterranean. It’s an invasive species any way you look at it, all over the world. So is Queen Anne’s lace. In southern California, celery is a weed! In southern Florida, tomatoes are a pest. So this concept of invasive species all has to do with the context.

“My long view agrees with H.L. Hudson, who sees this concern about invasive species as an opportunity for Monsanto to sell a lot of Roundup.” But since Morton bought some property that’s rich with native species, some threatened or endangered, “I have become way more circumspect about what I let get away than I was 15 years ago. I can argue either side of this. I think whenever you introduce a new species, you’ve got to watch it.”

The seed of the thistle-like cardoons is carried some distance on the wind, he explained. “I won’t be letting any of my cardoons go to seed, because I do not want to have a gigantic thistle patch. Part of it is self-preservation.”

Morton recommended reading The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time, by Jonathan Weiner, especially if someone says nobody’s ever seen evolution in action or seen a new species be created, or that the theory of evolution is just a big idea. “If you are a vegetable breeder, you will understand this book better than most naturalists. This is the most important book I’ve read in … I don’t know how long. This book reveals precisely how new species arise and how to tell where they’re coming from and what’s making them happen. It’s all got to do with species coupling between the beak of the finch and what it eats. The difference between survival and dying is about ½ millimeter. So you have to be watching.”

– Jean English

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