I got to write about superstar organic plant breeder Frank Morton for Communal Table, a new literary and food publication created by the talented Adrian Hale. Here's a teaser, below, but you can read the whole article here.
Frank Morton with Lane Selman, agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, brandishing a mix of Stocky Red Roasters, Joelene's Rustic Italian, Little Bells, and Gatherer's Gold [Photo by Shawn Linehan]
When I moved to Portland four years ago and began frequenting the farmers’ market, it didn’t take me long to become obsessed with Gathering Together Farm’s vegetables. The farm’s stand drew me in with its bounty and its kaleidoscope of color: crisp peppers in green, red, yellow, and purple; fragrant bundles of fresh basil; and singular specimens that I’d never seen before, like watermelon radish and delicata “zeppelin” squash. But it was the lettuce—hulking heads of it, bursting with uncommon vigor—and several types of kale (not just lacinato but White Russian and a frilly magenta-stemmed kale called Red Ursa) that stopped me in my tracks and caused me to exclaim out loud to complete strangers.
Before I ever tasted a nibble of lettuce, I knew Gathering Together Farm was special. What I didn’t know until recently was why some of the farm’s most popular vegetables are unique and uniquely tasty.
The wild salad mix, the kale, and the delicata can all be traced directly to one maverick plant breeder named Frank Morton. Little known to the general public, Morton is a rock star in plant breeding circles. A seed saver who grows heirloom plants that are at risk of extinction, Morton is also an organic plant breeder who creates never-before-seen varieties that have improved yield and disease resistance as well as culinary attributes such as texture, color, and enhanced flavor. He’s also an indefatigable activist who sued the USDA in 2008 for failure to require an environmental impact assessment before Roundup Ready sugar beets were introduced in the Willamette Valley.
Plant breeders have been overlooked in the local food movement, but they shouldn’t be. Without them, we wouldn’t have any heirloom tomatoes to delight over at our farmers’ markets or improved varieties like Frank Morton’s addictive Stocky Red Roaster sweet peppers. “Breeders are architects . . . the people writing the original recipes,” says chef Dan Barber in The Third Plate. The type of breeding that makes headlines these days is genetic engineering, a technology introduced in the 1980s that involves splicing DNA from one plant or animal into an entirely different plant. (“Golden rice,” for instance, is endowed with a gene from corn and a gene from a soil bacterium.) But what Frank Morton practices is old-fashioned Mendelian crossbreeding, which humans have used for thousands of years. He crosses a plant that has a trait he likes—say, Merlot lettuce, which is resistant to downy mildew—with another plant he also likes—say, Reine d’ Glaces lettuce, which has dark-green lacy leaves and is crispy and sweet—then saves the seeds from this union and plants those the following season.