America's Original Food-Tech Genius

 by Clark Driftmier

by Clark Driftmier

We are all dazzled by the exciting innovations in today’s food industry. New ideas are rushing into the market, from lab-grown meat to milk made from peas to root-extracted heme to burgers made from crawly creatures. Stellar tech and finance names such as Gates, Soros, Page and Khosla are investing in new food ventures. Today is indeed a rich period for food innovation in America - - but it’s not the first.

 

After the Civil War, a wave of new ideas in plant breeding and hybridization swept U.S. agriculture, creating a wealth of new productive plant resources, including many foods we consume today. The most famous leader in this wave of plant innovation was Luther Burbank (1849 – 1926). At the peak of Burbank’s fame early in the 20th century, he was listed alongside Thomas Edison and Henry Ford as one of America’s giants of innovation.

 L to R: Thomas Edison; Luther Burbank; Henry Ford (1915)

L to R: Thomas Edison; Luther Burbank; Henry Ford (1915)

Today, if we eat a baked Russet Burbank potato, savor a succulent Santa Rosa plum or plant a dazzling Shasta daisy in our garden, we are benefitting from plants developed and introduced by Burbank. From his plant breeding lab in Santa Rosa, CA and field trial farms in nearby Sebastopol, Burbank developed thousands of different varieties of foods, ornamental plants and industrial crops. Of these, more than 800 varieties were introduced across America during five decades of horticultural innovation.

 High-tech Food lab circa 1890 - the Burbank Plant Breeding Greenhouse

High-tech Food lab circa 1890 - the Burbank Plant Breeding Greenhouse

In Burbank’s day, there was no gene splicing, no tissue culture, no enzymatic extraction of proteins or other food components. New foods and plants were created by finding natural variations of other older forms –  for example, the discovery of the first red delicious apple – or by cross breeding different sample plants and looking for promising offspring. The hybridization of plants via cross breeding was Burbank’s main method in developing new forms, colors and flavors. Burbank admired Charles Darwin and studied Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Burbank carefully pollinated and cross bred thousands of different samples, planted the resulting seeds, kept the most favorable offspring, then repeated the process over multiple iterations. He also used numerous techniques of grafting that he learned in his youth working in New England apple orchards.  For Burbank, horticultural enterprise was not purely academic: he wanted to be financially successful and he developed licensing and purchase agreements with different commercial nurseries so that his new plants could find the widest and most lucrative pathways to the market.

Newspapers and magazines regularly described Burbank as a “wizard” and a “genius,” and his fame spread internationally. Notable personages of the early 20th century made the pilgrimage to visit Burbank’s research grounds, including author Jack London, lecturer and humanitarian Helen Keller and spiritual visionary Paramahansa Yogananda. Jack London was so admiring that he asked Burbank to help identify the best plants for his nearby ranch, and Yogananda wrote extensively of Burbank in his bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi.

Burbank & Famous Friends.png

Not all of Burbank’s botanical innovations were “winners” in the market. He worked for years to hybridize and optimize a spineless form of prickly pear cactus to use as cattle feed on ranches. Although the cows ate the smooth, spineless cactus with gusto, the plant never demonstrated superior animal feed economics and was bypassed in favor of better feeds such as alfalfa.

 Burbank with his cactus - a labor of love but unsuccessful

Burbank with his cactus - a labor of love but unsuccessful

Whether the innovations succeeded or failed, Burbank always pursued a unique, inquisitive and creatively contrarian style of entrepreneurship, informed by a broad, humanistic world view. He delighted in succeeding with projects deemed “un-doable” by others, such as hybridizing two disparate plants that the “experts” said were incompatible. He also frustrated and bedeviled the academics by focusing his time on market potential and pathways to commerce rather than writing up and publishing his data and research for peer review and publishing in academic journals. In part, Burbank felt that time spent publishing research papers was not in his economic best interest. The academics sniffily labeled Burbank as “unscientific,” but he had plants to cross-breed and new varieties to invent. Of equal importance, Burbank was reluctant to openly publish his methods and findings because he wanted to protect his propriety IP, this in an era with no plant patent system and no IP protection for new plants and technologies. In fact, Burbank’s struggles to protect his IP helped stimulate his friend Thomas Edison to lobby the U.S. government to establish the plant patent system to protect innovators such as Burbank. Burbank died prior to the launch of the U.S. plant patent system, a system which functions today to protect the IP and innovations of plant pioneers and hybridizers.

 

At the time of Burbank’s death in 1926, he was universally hailed as the greatest horticulturalist of his time. Today in downtown Santa Rosa one can walk past the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and the Luther Burbank Savings, then visit the original Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, which has been preserved as a National Historical Site. This home and garden acreage, including the greenhouse where Burbank conducted his research, is maintained by the city and by a not-for-profit foundation. There in the Santa Rosa soil and sunshine, described by Burbank as “the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned,” the visitor can see many of the plant innovations that Burbank gave us, including the Russet Burbank potato, the Santa Rosa plum and the Shasta daisy. Visitors can even firmly grasp one of Burbank’s original spineless cactus plants, now huge and rambly after 100+ years - - nary a prickle.

 Luther Burbank - an innovator for his age and for the ages

Luther Burbank - an innovator for his age and for the ages

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CLARK DRIFTMIER is Managing Director of Strobus Consulting (www.strobusconsulting.com) which develops new brands and go-to-market business strategies. He has been a food entrepreneur and start-up specialist for nearly 3 decades. Clark’s new product and management initiatives include hundreds of new products in several dozen food categories.  A published author of articles on natural and organic foods, Clark has also spoken at numerous conferences and has served on several national and regional not-for-profit boards. He and his family live in Northern California.