I’m extremely fortunate to live at Fordhook Farm, the Burpee family redoubt, where we carry on all of our basic ornamental and vegetable research, and put on our summer open houses, the next one being Saturday, July 12th.
A 19th century success story, the Burpees were a diverse clan including illustrious fathers, moms, daughters and wives. The name is originally Beaupre, of French Protestant origin. Pushed out of France, they emigrated to Canada and then Pennsylvania, where they became several generations of physicians.
The company’s founder, W. Atlee Burpee or just “Atlee”, hobnobbed with both Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford and was a distant cousin of the great plant breeder, Luther Burbank. His son, David, traveled in high social circles in Philadelphia. At his city men’s club, The Pennsylvania Society, he was titled “Brother Seed”. Yet he founded the War Gardens movement during WWI, which later became known as Victory Gardens. During the Second World War, he sent over a million pounds of vegetable seeds to the Allied governments of Europe.
David’s wife, Lois Burpee, followed her own missionary father’s footsteps into philanthropy, both with the Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck at Welcome House, the orphanage they founded together for Amerasian children, and with the Burpee Company supplying vegetable seeds to church missions of every stripe worldwide. She also wrote a remarkable out-of-print cookbook. (For a complete history, click here.)
As the Burpees met the philanthropic challenges of the late 19th century and carried forward their contributions through the late 20th, we have confronted the famines of the 1990s in Somalia and Haiti, as well as humanitarian crises in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq. The air cargo carrier DHL helped us out in the Middle East, and CARE has been a steadfast partner. My friend John Agresto, now at The American University of Iraq—Sulaymaniyah, was a rock in support of our efforts in Iraq. An old fly-fishing buddy, and an avid vegetable gardener, John will be a visiting professor at Princeton University this fall. For ten years he was President of St. John’s College of Santa Fe. His book, Mugged By Reality, is the best account of the reconstruction in Iraq.
Now, as religious education becomes increasingly vital to the recovery of degraded and depleted urban neighborhoods and among the virtual refugee camps along the US-Mexico border, the Burpee Company and its affiliates continue to meet the challenge. Our foundation has given support to community development programs from southern California to post-Katrina areas of Louisiana and Florida. We continue to support both secular and religious activities, as the Burpee family did a hundred years ago.
Our diverse, non-horticultural interests extend to the world of art and aesthetics. Over the last twenty years we have accumulated a large collection of monumental sculptures at Fordhook Farm by the artists Steve Tobin, Daisuke Shintani, Densaburo Oku and Eric Finnerty. Viewing the collection is possible by appointment for small groups and by the public on our Garden Conservancy Open Days.
Finally, our education activities include primary, secondary, college and university levels. We support both agricultural and general academic programs with an emphasis on studies of constitutional democracies. While we support public schools, we also provide limited assistance to private education reform organizations and religious schools. However, our areas of concentration continue to be horticultural education, particularly to programs addressing poor neighborhoods and children’s gardens.