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Meet the breeders obsessed with creating remarkable new crops

Obscure apples, the sex life of garlic, and the search for meaning in agriculture

By Veronique Greenwood

When I reach Avram Drucker on the phone, he’s escaping the blazing Oregon sun for a few minutes. He’s been harvesting garlic, unearthing the heads of various varieties from the farm he runs in the southern Cascades. The garlic he’ll sell at a farmer’s market and online includes the tried and true Silver Rose Silverskin and Polish White varieties. But what we are going to talk about is a new breed of garlic — the breed that Drucker and a friend, over more than five years, coaxed into being by a process so long, intense, and unlikely as to beggar belief. “I’ve been obsessed with garlic for a long time,” he reflects.

Most of us give little thought to the domestication of the carrot or the genetics of mesclun lettuce mix. If we think about plant breeding at all, it’s probably to wonder if our food has been engineered or bred the old-fashioned way. If we think at all of the breeders, we may think that they’re motivated by a specific look or taste — which is part of it, especially at large agribusiness companies.

But out on the edge of the mainstream, independent plant breeders and collectors — a fleet of eccentrics that includes Avram Drucker — are driven by motivations far more esoteric and powerful. In backyards and on small farms, they operate as modern-day Gregor Mendels, painstakingly growing new varieties of familiar crops, usually focusing on a single species — garlic, lettuce, wheat — to explore what a plant can do.

It is an avocation, but it also often involves something deeper about the connection between humans and the natural world. In a time when food is dominated by agribusiness, independent breeders tend to be driven by an interest in the possibly wonderful, rather than the optimally efficient. In contrast to big companies, which might aim for decent crops that can grow anywhere, independent breeders look for crops that are truly remarkable or specific to a place. And while large companies restrict what farmers can do with the seed they buy, independent breeders often insist that their work be shared, creating an open-source network of seeds like botanical software developers on a spree. In a way, says one breeder, “We’re all kind of entrepreneurial anarchists.”

The breeder’s raw materials seem pretty straightforward: When the pollen of one plant fertilizes the egg of another in sexual reproduction, their chromosomes unfurl and swap parts. That results in offspring that, like all children, can be a surprising mix of their parents. Some might have one parent’s delicately spotted leaves and the other parent’s height; others might have a completely different mix. In theory, a breeder repeats the process, often by hand with a paintbrush or another tool to transfer pollen from plant to plant, using the offspring that are most interesting to them.

The reality, however, is frequently much more chaotic. Apples, for instance, don’t breed true, meaning that seedlings might be nothing like either parent. Planting a seed from a Macintosh may get you tiny sour green apples, or mushy brown ones, rather than the familiar fruit you see in the store, so most apple trees are produced via grafting instead.

In a time when food is dominated by agribusiness, independent breeders tend to be driven by an interest in the possibly wonderful, rather than the optimally efficient.

University apple breeding programs, which generate new varieties like Honeycrisp and SweeTango™, grow large numbers of seedlings and run genetic tests to check for desired traits to streamline the process. Apple obsessives outside the ivory tower instead cast an eye over the riot of random offspring to find the one new tree so good it’s worth keeping. At his home in Palermo, Maine, John Bunker, known to many as “the apple whisperer,” doesn’t really do breeding, but he does a lot of selecting: If he hears of a promising seedling apple, he’ll take a few cuttings from it to graft onto a bigger tree to see how it does.

Bunker also seeks out selections made by long-gone apple growers, finding trees that were once part of orchards or backyard gardens and now are stranded in forests and on roadsides throughout New England. He takes cuttings from these 150-year-old trees, in hopes that they are remnants of once-famous varieties that were forgotten about in the rush to grow modern behemoths like Red and Golden Delicious. Under his careful guidance, nursery company Fedco has brought back the Black Oxford, which gives a deep red, almost black fruit, as well as Cora’s Grand Greening, thought to have been discovered on Maine’s North Haven Island before 1900, and many others.

Years ago, Bunker visited North Haven to find a rare red-and-yellow-striped apple called Aunt Penelope Winslow, named after a woman who moved to the island from Massachusetts in the 1700s with an apple sapling packed in a bathtub. The apple was grown there for years, but fell out of the public eye. Bunker found a sole remaining tree; now, Fedco has brought it back to market. Aunt Penelope’s fruit, shiny and gently ribbed, is a very rare all-purpose apple that’s good in pies, cider, and just for eating. The fruit also makes for hearty applesauce, as Bunker writes in his FedCo catalog description: “thick, rich, yellow and slightly tart.”

In his living room in the Maine woods, Bunker shows me a clipboard thick with notes about hundreds of varieties he is trying out. Nameless seedling apples (“B+”) are listed alongside Hagloe Crab (“no growth”) and Yellow Prince (“Good. MOVE”). Pencil notes are scrawled in the margin. “If you’re going to go deeply into anything, it has to be pure love,” he says. He’s echoing something many independent breeders and collectors described to me: the feeling of being so extravagantly wrapped up in something that it becomes the structure of your life.

For Avram Drucker, garlic’s reproductive orneriness, which puts even apples to shame, was not much of a deterrent. Garlic has not really had sex for millennia, preferring instead to make carbon copies of itself. A garlic clove can sprout into a new, genetically identical garlic plant, grow a head of cloves underground, and repeat the process every growing season. But Drucker, driven by desire to see what garlic is capable of, decided to try breeding them.

He began by letting garlic plants flower on his farm, Garlicana Farm. Then he painstakingly removed part of each bloom that makes it unlikely to generate seed, called the bulbil, and allowed insects to pollinate the flowers. At the end of the season, he looked for seeds. But there were hardly any: Dozens of plants yielded a total of just one or two seeds. And when he planted them, they didn’t sprout. After he teamed up with his friend Ted Meredith, author of The Complete Book of Garlic, they had a little more success. One year, they managed to get a few hundred seeds.

“We got 10 seeds that germinated out of that,” Drucker says. “And each one was cherished.” Slowly, slowly, they managed to breed two different strains of Krasnodar White garlic and created a klatch of new garlics, including a beautiful porcelain-cloved plant they named Arsia, after a volcano on Mars. A fresh, green smell rises from it when crushed, and the cloves have a faint purple tinge.

The whole process took about five to six years. But then, time doesn’t seem to deter those who’ve caught the breeding bug, says Frank Morton, a self-described lettuce obsessive who has been breeding new varieties since the early 1980s. “In some ways, you need to be patient. But we are not patient. We are always trying to figure out how to make this happen faster…And we give ourselves a lot to do. I don’t know any plant breeders who are only working on one thing.” Morton — who runs Wild Garden Seed, an organic seed company in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, with his wife Karenestimates he has upwards of 50 projects going at any given time.

Andrew Still, who farms and runs the company Adaptive Seeds with his wife Sarah Kleeger near the town of Sweet Home, Oregon, agrees. Breeders, he says, often try out as much material as they can, in an intense form of playfulness. “There’s so much diversity and so many possibilities out there, you’re just driven to do as much as possible. You want to do everything, but you know you can’t,” he says. “And the more you dig into it, the more it grabs you.”

When I go out to see Darrell Probst, who has devoted his entire adult life to the colorful flowering plant coreopsis, we dodge from row to row of his central Massachusetts fields in the shimmering heat. Coreopsis, once they’re fully grown, form mounds of green, topped with luscious yellow, orange, or pink flowers that bob gaily along roadsides and in gardens. Probst’s innumerable projects include things like creating a new color, aiming for more compact growth, and generating a plant that will bloom all summer. “It’s like Christmas all year,” Probst says of breeding. “New packages that you’re opening [and] you don’t know what’s in it.”

Garlic has not really had sex for millennia, preferring instead to make carbon copies of itself.

A smaller field, nestled in surrounding forest, catches my eye, and his face lights up. It contains work on a project that’s finally starting to pick up speed, nearly two decades after it began. “It’s taken me forever to get what I want,” he says as we pick our way over. Though he started the project in 1999, it was only last year that Probst managed to get some fertile dwarf plants that flower abundantly. They are charming, beautiful little things, with full petals and rich color. 

When will it be on the market? I ask.  

He fingers the petals of a tall coreopsis for a moment, then replies: “Who knows if this will ever be on the market.” Nurseries only want plants that are exceptionally short, so they are easier to transport in flats. Even the new dwarf coreopsis, at the stage it would need to be transported, is still too tall. “I can’t talk growers into selling something like this, or even trying,” he says. “This will never make money.” But, he continues, “I don’t have a problem introducing a plant that doesn’t make me money, if it’s a good plant.”

There it is, the central refrain threaded through most conversations with people who let their love of a plant shape their life — the feeling that the work feels worth doing. Some independent breeders are working to make a livelihood from their seeds, but it’s not all just a business decision. Many orient themselves in opposition to an agricultural system where crops are interchangeable commodities and low prices beat out all other concerns, including environmental and social ones.

For instance, big companies usually patent or otherwise legally protect their seed. One of the results is that farmers aren’t allowed to save their crop as seed for the next season, or breed with it to adapt a plant to their region, which humans have probably been doing since farming began. Seeds may even be labeled saying they can be grown only in private gardens, not commercial farms. It’s that kind of encroachment that lights the fire under many breeders, says Carol Deppe, a breeding pioneer whose book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties (2000) launched many a garden tinkerer: “It’s people who are stealing something from humanity, and declaring it their own private thing.” Some independent breeders take part in the Open Source Seed Initiative, which sets up open-source-style licenses for new seeds. After farmers buy those seeds from the people who invented them, they’re free to do with them as they wish, as long as the results are never patented.

In the end, being an independent requires fierceness in the face of uncertainty and overwhelming odds. “It’s not clear there is going to be a payoff,” says Frank Morton of starting a project. “So you are kind of working just because it’s something you want to do. You just want to do it. And it might create an opportunity down the line, but it will certainly be five or six years before you can show it to anyone.”

Even if you never plant a garden, or if you kill every houseplant you touch, there’s something about the way breeders have leapt into what they do with both feet that’s inspiring, even profound. Life is too long to do something lame, they seem to be saying. What you do with your time on Earth, which stretches beyond any job, beyond many relationships, beyond all expectation, might as well be something you’re obsessed with.

“It’s probably a drive to make the world a better place, while enjoying it, while you’re doing it,” says Andrew Still. “[It’s] finding that thing you really find interesting or beautiful that you can see progressing over the years.”

“You have a chance to have an original idea,” Carol Deppe says, “and try to bring about things that don’t exist now — and, if something unusual shows up, be able to imagine the possibilities.”

Avram Drucker, true to form, has his own take on things. Breeders, who are less mad scientists than they are sculptors of nature, are driven by urges more universal that you might imagine.

“Obsession can be somewhat arbitrary,” he says. “What makes people be obsessed with anything? What makes people focus? That doesn’t necessarily pertain to seed breeding. It pertains to having something interesting that you focus on.”

“We’re irrelevant,” he continues. “We’re small, small things in a vast universe. So make your meaning in what you do. Not the timelessness of your small ego.”

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Veronique Greenwood's work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and many others.


Illustration by Martín Elfman


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