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July, 2013

The Bill Gates of Agriculture Luther Burbank
By Dennis Linden

Though he died almost 90 years ago, his innovations can still be found throughout the modern retail produce department.

Luther BurbankIn doing research for an article on hybrid fruit last month it was impossible to avoid the contributions that Luther Burbank made to the fresh produce and flower industries. Though he died almost 90 years ago, his innovations can still be found throughout the modern retail produce department. This prolific horticulturist is credited with inventing hundreds of new varieties of plums and prunes, grains and grasses, apples, berries, cacti, figs, nectarines, peaches, quinces, walnuts, as well as dozens of varieties of lilies and other flowers.

Of course the most famous of his achievements was the Burbank Russet potato; still the most popular potato variety worldwide. Burbank cultivated the strain on his Massachusetts farm and debuted what he called the Burbank potato to farmers in the U.S. in 1871. His potato was introduced in Ireland to combat the blight epidemic. Despite all the horticulturists who have followed in his footsteps, the Burbank's large, hardy, fine-grained characteristics have never been bested and is still very much a staple in American agriculture and diet. Today it is commonly referred to as the Idaho potato.

Organic Russet PotatoesLuther was a brilliant botanist, but obviously a lousy businessman, as he sold the rights to his new potato for a mere $150! Although, in the 1870s, that was enough to pay for his first trip from Massachusetts to Santa Rosa, California, where he subsequently moved to establish a nursery, greenhouse, and experimental farm. For the next 50 years here is where his long list of botanical varieties were developed for the world to enjoy. The city of Santa Rosa still holds an annual Rose Parade to celebrate Burbank’s memory. Luther was buried near his greenhouse on the grounds of his home. Today, the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens is designated as a Registered National, State, City and Horticultural Historic Landmark and maintained as a museum.

Burbank’s horticultural innovations are even more amazing considering his education or, more correctly, his lack of education. He could only attend high school in the winter as he had to work on his father's farm the rest of the year. Most all of his scientific training came from library books and especially from reading Charles Darwin's Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, which motivated Burbank to begin grafting and budding plants.

Surprisingly, he would later befriend William Jennings Bryan, who argued successfully in Tennessee’s infamous Scope Trial to block the teaching of Darwin’s evolution theory. Commenting on the verdict, Burbank wrote profoundly: "Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity, and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope, and the spectroscope or any other instrument of precision which may in the future be invented, constructed or used for the discovery of truth".

One of Burbank’s primary goals was to increase the world’s food supply by manipulating the characteristics of plants. For instance, he developed an improved spineless cactus, which could provide forage food for livestock in desert regions. Similarly, the Burbank potato produced more tubers per plant than any other variety to date. However, Burbank was criticized by scientists of his day because he did not keep the kind of careful records that is the normal protocol in scientific research.

His defense was to say that he was always more focused in getting results rather than spending time jotting down his research. With this global view, it is not surprising that Luther was a good friend of both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, also very impactful inventors of the time. In fact, both men visited him together at his facilities in Santa Rosa. One can only imagine the conversation at that dinner table! All three of those men literally changed the world with their prolific innovations; the equivalent today would be a table set for Bill Gates, Sergey Brin and the late Steve Jobs.

Luther’s own book, How Plants Are Treated to Work for Man (1921), published just five years before his death, was very instrumental in Congress passing the Plant Patent Act in 1930, which made new varieties of plants patentable for the first time. In support of this legislation, his friend Thomas Edison said, "This will, I feel sure, give us many Burbanks." Burbank was awarded 16 plant patents posthumously.

Besides his famed potato, Burbank's July Elberta peach, Santa Rosa plum, and Flaming Gold nectarine are still very viable varieties in the marketplace one-hundred years after their development. It would take the space of this entire web site to list in detail all the fruits, vegetables and flowers that Burbank developed. So here is a list of varieties he created within each category:

113 plums and prunes
35 fruiting cacti
16 blackberries
13 raspberries
11 quinces
11 plumcots
10 cherries
10 strawberries
10 apples
8 peaches
6 chestnuts
5 nectarines
4 grapes
4 pears
2 figs
69 nuts
26 vegetables
9 grains, grasses, forage types
91 flowers

Coincidentally and appropriately, the home of Bill Gates is located on Seattle’s Lake Union; Gates shares the lake’s shoreline and a view of that community’s own nearby 77-acre Luther Burbank City Park!