Seed farmers have one shot to get it right each year. When Frank Morton and his wife, Karen, started Wild Garden Seed in 1994, organic seed breeding was rare. With few resources and no mentors, they cataloged successes and failures annually to build their own one-of-a-kind knowledge library. The collection of stories covers 30 years of firsthand experiences — it’s a time- and farmer-tested archive that the Mortons have shared with many others.
As one former employee said, “Frank doesn’t teach. He tells stories.”
Morton is humble. He takes no credit for the success of his proteges who now own their own successful organic seed-related businesses. Instead, he appreciates the spirit of the organic community for its commitment to supporting others.
“None of us knew what we were doing 30 or 40 years ago; we were learning as we went,” he said. “Every farm was an experiment station and the only way to get better was to share what worked and what didn’t.”
Despite decades of hands-on experience, he subscribes to no specific process. “What I’m trying to get across to people is not a method,” Morton said. “It’s a way of looking at things. I can’t hand somebody a piece of paper and say, ‘This is how we do it.'” He gently reminds his staff that situations are always different, no matter how nuanced. Nothing is foolproof.
Morton describes his approach to mentorship as the “old back-and-forth method.” At Wild Garden Seed, he begins the day with a conversation with his employees. From assessing pest problems to increasing harvest efficiencies, Morton puts a premium on people developing an elasticity of mind.
“I’m always hoping that they won’t attack a problem with the same tool,” he said. “We talk things out. To them, I’m the old seed guy. I’ve seen a lot of different scenarios on the farm and learned from them.”
All of that back and forth helps Wild Garden Seed shape the way for others. With sales in more than 40 countries, Morton and his wife are well-versed, successful organic seed leaders. Whether participating in the Oregon Tilth-supported Northwest Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange or supporting the Organic Seed Alliance — oh, and there’s a whole story about Morton winning a lawsuit against Monsanto for genetically engineered seed — his stories continue to help inspire and train new seed breeders and growers. Even ones who are now in competition with him.
Of course, he doesn’t mind one bit. “The community needs to grow,” he said. “It needs to thrive. It needs passionate people and flexible thinkers to give us a better tomorrow.”