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Burpee, GMO And Monsanto Rumors Put To Rest

By George Ball - Burpee Chairman and CEO

I and others at Burpee are asked occasionally about our alleged connection to Monsanto and whether we sell GMO seed.  We have even been accused of being owned by Monsanto on the Internet.  I’ve decided to address these questions and false allegations formally with the hopes that someone out there in cyberspace may refer back to this post for information on these issues—straight from the source.

For the record, I own W. Atlee Burpee & Co.  Burpee is NOT owned by Monsanto.  We do purchase a small number of seeds from the garden seed department of Seminis, a Monsanto subsidiary, and so do our biggest competitors. We do NOT sell GMO seed, never have in the past, and will not sell it in the future.  

Recently I was called on the telephone by a blogger from Chicago named Mr. Brown Thumb.  This was a “first”.  Most bloggers fancy themselves to be journalists.  Yet, oddly, they steadfastly ignore the rules of  journalism, such as contacting sources and checking facts.  Not so Mr. Brown Thumb. His diligence in taking the time to do research for his blog is highly commendable.  Despite the ambiguous title of his post, I greatly appreciate that he had the courage to ask hard questions and took the time to study my answers.  

With a few exceptions—minor errors of names and dates— Mr. Brown Thumb (Ramon Gonzalez) got it right.  He is “the real deal”.
Please read him at:
http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/chicago-garden/2011/02/can-you-trust-burpee-seeds.html 

I shall add some background.  Our genius founder W. Atlee Burpee innovated vegetable seed and plant selection for the US continent—versus old varieties from Europe that were growing badly in such a different summer climate—from the 1870s to his untimely passing in 1915.  Many years later his son David lost a great asset in the exodus of  Oved Shifress, a key tomato and squash breeder to Israel during the late 1940s.  He hired a new plant breeder named Howard Peto, a second generation immigrant from Canada.  Mr. Peto bred many fine tomatoes, peppers and melons during his five years with the company.  David Burpee moved him to California to open a year ’round breeding center for the US western climate and to economize research and stock (parent)  seed production by avoiding the Pennsylvania winter.

Soon after setting up Burpee’s new operations in California, Mr. Peto decided to divide his time between home garden breeding and breeding for the so-called truck market, medium to large-sized farmers who transport their farm produce by truck to urban markets.  He wished also to breed for juice and canned tomatoes.  However, Mr. Burpee did not wish to breed for any consumer other than the home gardener and the small, local farmer.

Therefore, Mr. Peto quit the Burpee Company in the mid 50s and started up his own company.  His first tomato was ‘Wonder Boy’, an inferior knock-off of ‘Big Boy’, which is the famous home garden hybrid bred in 1948 by Oved Shifriss of Burpee, whom Mr. Peto replaced.  Undoubtedly Mr. Peto used his “garden knowledge” to get his California commercial tomato seed business going.  Nevertheless, he left the Burpee Company amicably.  These were “the old days” when agreements and disagreements were commonly settled with a handshake.

Mr. Peto’s replacement at Burpee was Paul Thomas who bred many fine home garden tomatoes during the late 50s and early 60s before also leaving for California to join Mr. Peto.  Thus, “Petoseed” became a supplier of some high quality open-pollinated as well as hybrid garden vegetable seeds.  (However, all varietal candidates had to be tested at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, PA, which continues to be the case today.)  Soon many more garden seed companies bought from not only Burpee but also from Petoseed, companies as diverse as Ferry-Morse, Park’s, Gurney’s, Johnny’s, Northrup King and Comstock-Ferre.  Burpee and Petoseed together dominated vegetable breeding for the home garden consumer during the 60s.  The sole difference between the two companies was that Petoseed bred also for the West Coast commercial farm growers, whereas Burpee adhered to a strict focus on the home gardener.  But, by industry tradition in those days,  in a “blind trial” the best tasting tomato wins, and often Mr. Burpee bought varieties from Mr. Peto, as well as, of course, bred tomatoes himself and with Mr. Thomas’ replacement, John Mondry.

Then, Petoseed was purchased in the late 60s (1968, I think) by my uncle, G. Victor Ball, assisted by my father G. Carl Ball, his vice-president at George J. Ball—or “Ball Seed” as it was known at the time—a company founded in 1905 by my grandfather, a very enterprising flower breeder.  Our small flower seed company suddenly became a large flower and vegetable seed company while I was in boarding school.
The late David Burpee, who I met as a teenager while working on a seed farm in Costa Rica, then did business with my uncles and later my father, after my last uncle semi-retired.  Today my sister Anna Ball owns this company, now known as Ball Horticultural.  So that is the background of facts.

However, the past that some folks are extremely focused upon has to do with my father’s desire to sell Petoseed, with his brother’s (my uncle’s) approval, as well as that of many relatives such as a brother, sister, aunts and cousins, to an entrepreneur from Mexico named Alfonso Romo Garza.  Mr. Romo, as he is called, began in baked goods and then branched out into packaging, cigarettes, beer and insurance.  He even founded a business school in Monterey in the late 90s modeled on Wharton—all before reaching the age of 40.  He was, and remains, an impressive entrepreneur who, at that time, wanted to diversify from cookies, crackers, beer, tobacco, et al, into vegetables, fruits and grain.  He was profiled on page 1 of the Wall Street Journal shortly before the mid 1990s transaction (about ’94-’95).  His vision was to help the burgeoning population of small and medium sized farmers primarily in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
Nevertheless, throughout these changes of ownership, Petoseed was always the same—an extremely well-run company, composed of many ex-Burpee breeders and executives, and headquartered in Ventura County in Southern California.  It remains so to this day.

In 1994 I was asked by my father, the late  G. Carl Ball, to assist in part of the transition by serving on the board with him of the new Mexican company—Seminis—composed of Petoseed and several other free-standing companies Mr. Romo bought, from a small watermelon breeding company in Texas to the large corn breeder, Asgrow, of Kalamazoo, Michigan.  I served about a year and then left to focus my energies on Burpee, which I had bought, first with my family in the early 90s, and then from my family, in the late 90s.  Naturally, as the president of Burpee, I continued to produce seed, as I have done my entire career, but also bought from any company that could do better than I, including my old friends—and  former colleagues—at Petoseed, now called Seminis.  (This is the core of my business philosophy: sell only the best.)

In the early 2000s Mr. Romo decided to divest himself of all his non-Mexican seed holdings for reasons of his own, and sold Seminis to first one investment bank, which then sold it to another investment bank, which then sold it to Monsanto in the mid 2000s, about ’04 or ’05.

This sale took place long after Petoseed began in the mid 1950s by an ex-Burpee tomato breeder, some of whose tomatoes are still loved by home gardeners nationwide, such as Paul Thomas’ ‘Better Boy’.  The list of companies that buy from the garden seed department of  Seminis, now a very tiny business activity of Monsanto, is long and includes most of the high quality seed sellers, as well as Burpee.  We at Burpee never reject serving our customers the best quality home garden vegetable varieties we can either grow or find, and some of the latter include varieties from Seminis.  All are still tested at Fordhook Farm in Pennsylvania.  

Finally, it is extremely important to note that when Monsanto acquired Seminis, neither Burpee as a company nor I, George Ball as its owner, had any financial ownership or interest in either company.  It was that way when Monsanto purchased Seminis and remains that way today.  Burpee continues as a privately owned company and, as I wish to emphasize, along with other leaders in the home gardening industry, we seek out suitable seeds from Seminis and other companies that adhere to the rigid guidelines we maintain and require of all our suppliers to you our valued home garden and small farmer customers.  If we cannot breed and produce the seeds or plants ourselves, we find those that can.

On behalf of the entire staff of W. Atlee Burpee & Co., thank you for 135 years of patronage, and for your future consideration of our many fine vegetable and flower varieties, whether bred by us or by our treasured suppliers the world over.

Read more about Burpee's Policy on GMO's

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