Book Review: Orchard House

Orchard House, by Tara Austen Weaver, has been a pleasant diversion from current world worries into a story about how a family learns to draw together through the experiences of learning “to garden” and share experiences in an oversized backyard garden in Seattle. The author, an unmarried thirty-something who has been free to go where she will, works through childhood issues alongside her aging mother and learns about building a feeling of family as she adjusts to the region and the climate while juggling her job and other concerns. As the garden takes shape, she strives to create something leading to lasting memories for her visiting nieces and nephews. It’s not at all a difficult read and gives the reader a new understanding of the vagaries of the Pacific Northwest and how one gardens there while the tale (based on real life) unfolds. Meanwhile, each chapter recounts lessons learned while working through obstacles involving relationships and gardening.

I ran across this passage which stands out from the flow of the book because it encapsulates in just a few paragraphs, the history of seed access in this country and why many of us in garden club feel strongly about starting our own seeds from particular sources:

Some gardeners, I was beginning to realize, do not go to the plant sale in May and buy their entire garden, pre-sprouted and already three inches tall. Some gardeners grow their own.

There were many reasons for this, as I was learning from the gardening books I read on those long winter nights. Cost is the most obvious, but seed diversity was also important, A hundred years ago there were 497 varieties of lettuce available from commercial seed companies in America; now there were only thirty-six. We’d gone from 285 cucumber varieties to a mere sixteen.

Each lost variety led us down an increasingly precarious path reducing the resiliance of our food supply. The greater selection of plants that were grown, the better chance there was of surviving a crop failure. Had the Irish not been so dependent on a single potato variety in the 1800’s, the blight that caused the Great Potato Famine would not have been so devastating, and the course of human history would have been different.

The U.S. government had, at one time, understood this. Starting in 1839, seeds were collected, propagated and distributed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office–they were considered essential for the growth and security of the nation. By the end of the 1800’s, the government was distributing more than a billion seed packets each year.

Commercial seed companies didn’t like this. It was hard to make a profit on a product that could be obtained easily, traded and saved from year to year. It took forty years of lobbying, but in 1924 an association of commercial seed companies convinced Congress to shut down the government distribution program.

The seed breeding being done by commercial seed companies wasn’t a new program– its roots go back to the dawn of agriculture. For generations, this is how our species survived. At the end of each growing season, the biggest beans, the sweetest tomatoes were set aside. They were not for the dinner table but to start next year’s garden or crop. But it wasn’t until the 1900’s that seeds became big business.

The first step toward profit was hybrids: crosses of plants developed for certain botanical characteristics. Hybrids do not grow true–if you saved the seed and planted it again, you wouldn’t get the same product. At the end of the season, the farmers who grew hybrids had to buy more, improving the bottom line for agricultural companies but making farmers dependent on an outside source of seed. If you wanted to grow “Early Girl” tomatoes, you had to pony up each spring for seed.

The next step took place in 1980. Until that point, a single plant could be privately owned, but the genetic code that made up the plant belonged to all. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Diamond v. Chakrabarty changed that–a scientist who developed a new plant or life-form could now apply for a patent and own the rights to it. The same government that once distributed seeds for free was now issuing patents on nature. The staff of life–once considered so vital to our survival–had been privatized.

Seed companies were quickly bought up by chemical and pharmaceutical corporations. A single corporation,Monsanto, between 1996 and 2013, acquired seventy-nine different seed companies. Bayer bought thirty-two, Dow Chemical twenty-four. While some independents remained, there are farmers who would tell you it’s hard to keep the big agricultural businesses out of your fields or gardens. The small, seemingly homespun company you may be buying your seeds from could be owned by one of the giants.

It wasn’t just seed profits these companies were interested in. Chemical companies developed seed strains that were resistant to their pesticide products. A farmer could now plant a field of corn and spray the whole thing with weed killer. Because the corn had been bred to resist that particular chemical combination, the weeds would die, and the corn would continue to grow. Seeds were a way to get farmers to purchase more chemicals, which led to problems with pesticide runoff into rivers and streams and tainted land.

For this reason and for others, there were those who said seed saving was a political act. Hybrid seeds could not be saved from one year to the next, but others could–and had been for centuries. They were called open-pollinated seeds. Some open-pollinated seeds were heirloom varieties, stretching back generations, others were more modern, but in each case you could save and share the seed.  I started looking carefully at the seed packets I bought, choosing companies I knew to be independent and committed to preserving seed diversity. To grow them, it seemed, was to save them.”¹


¹Weaver, Tara Austen. Orchard House: A Memoir. New York. Ballantine Books. 2015. p.210-212