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Produce Business 101: The Bill Gates of Agriculture

Due the risk of ingredient shopping during these pandemic times, this month’s usual Associate Guest Chef is being replaced with an historical look at the most prolific inventor of the produce industry. Tune is next month for a delicious and unusual Costa Rican Ceviche recipe!

By Dennis Linden

Though he died some 94 years ago, Luther Burbank’s botanical creations can still be found on display throughout the world in retail produce departments every month of the year. One of this prolific horticulturist’s passions, fresh plums, is the main ingredient in this month’s Cookin’ with the Kids as well as Low Carb Kitchen. Of the over 800 new plants introduced by Luther Burbank in his lifetime, more than 100 were plums, prunes or plumcots; the result of Burbank’s unceasing experiments with hybridizing, also known as cross-pollination.

Of course the most famous of Luther’s 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. Despite all the horticulturists who have followed in his footsteps, the Burbank potato’s large, hardy, fine-grained characteristics have never been bested and is still very much a staple in American agriculture and diet.
Today the tuber is commonly referred to as the Idaho potato. While Luther was obviously a brilliant botanist, he was a lousy businessman as he sold the rights to his new potato for a mere one-hundred and fifty dollars! Still, 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 his long list of botanical varieties were developed for the world to enjoy.

Burbank became very interested in the possibilities that Japanese plums offered in developing new hybrids. He imported seedlings and two of these were very successful: one he called the Burbank and the second was a plum with red flesh that Burbank called the Satsuma, “in honor of the province whence it was derived.”


Burbank began experimenting with crosses of these two varieties with other plums, sometimes crossing a Japanese plum with several other varieties to achieve sweeter, juicier, more abundant and hardier plums. He purchased his large experimental Gold Ridge farm in nearby Sebastopol and soon it was filled with his experimental plums and other fruits. Burbank continued to work with hybridizing plums until his death in 1926. The most famous varieties are the award-winning Santa Rosa plum and the Wickson plum. Of the 16 posthumous patents Burbank was awarded, 6 were for plums.

In his fifty-five year career, Burbank is credited with inventing hundreds of new varieties of plums and prunes, nectarines, peaches, apples, berries, cacti, figs, quinces, walnuts, grains and grasses as well as dozens of varietal lilies and other flowers. 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.

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.

Edison, Ford, Burbank

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 Jeff Bezos.

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." It would take the space of this entire web site to list in detail all the fruits, vegetables and flowers that Burbank developed. For the sake of brevity, here is a list of the number of different varieties that he created within each fresh produce category:

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

Luther was buried near his greenhouse on the grounds of his home. The city of Santa Rosa still holds an annual parade to celebrate Burbank’s memory. Today, the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens is designated as a Registered National, State, City and Horticultural Historic Landmark and maintained as a museum. Coincidentally and appropriately, the home of Bill Gates is located along the shoreline of Seattle’s Lake Union with a view of his neighborhood’s local park, a 77-acre green space that also borders the same lakeshore called Luther Burbank City Park!
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