I heard Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak talk about research a few days ago. In the anxiety surrounding the retirement of Steve Jobs, he responded to the reporter’s query about the possible uncertainties of new product timelines:
“Oh, everyone at Apple works very far in advance—way into the future—like 1 to 1½ years!”
Apparently, agriculture and horticulture are rocket science compared to software research. In fact, animal and plant breeders may have been the very first scientific researchers.
“We need more docile cows that won’t run away—can we breed them for shorter legs?”
“Whoa—it’s freezing! We need sheep with longer rather than shorter hair—where are those really ugly long-hairs?”
Imagine the first food testers. “Oops, it looks like that berry is fatal. What about the one over there?” They probably used animals first, or so one would hope. Probably the long-legged and shorthaired ones.
Hybridization—the selective breeding of plants and animals for desirable traits—is mankind’s original, pre-manufacturing creative act. The mere process of choosing one group of plants over another—by replanting the seeds from one group, thus enabling it to thrive over the other—results in these new plants becoming a distinct “breed” or domesticated race. No factory required. New age gurus like Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough are neither “new” nor especially guru-like. The ancient remains the avant-garde.
It’s astonishing to consider how long plant breeding takes, compared to the freeze-dried, instantly prepared, wizardly hi-tech creations of today. On the one hand, changes and variations occur quickly in plants, considering that they are natural phenomena. Change is built in, like a mechanical spring. Yet the annual cycle dominates breeding in the temperate zones. Thus, most genetic research takes many years, depending on the genus as well as the breeder’s ability. I know a cherry breeder who is scheduled to release later in her career a new cultivar that her PhD adviser began working on when he was her age—over 60 years for a single new introduction from two of the world’s best cherry breeders.
A new pot cyclamen averages 10 years of constant attention, while the tuberous-rooted begonia takes about 12 years. On the more optimistic end, an experimental pansy breeder can introduce a new cultivar in about 3 to 4 years. Tomatoes average 4 to 5 years, bell peppers 5 to 6 years and cucumbers and squash 7 to 8 years. Our recent Heronswood Hellebores took 13 years—from the first selections in 1993 to the introductions in 2006. (Yet, consider how inexpensive flowers and vegetables are.)
Therefore, most, if not all, breeding companies try to cut these expensive product development cycles in half by using nurseries in the southern hemisphere to double up generations per year. They “grow out” selections every six instead of twelve months—and spend a lot of time flying back and forth to Peru, Chile, South Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
So when Mr. Wozniak assured reporters that Apple would likely sail smoothly with 1-2 year new product development horizons, he reminded me of the profound genius and patience that go into plant breeding. Perhaps the hi-tech folks could learn from the horticultural sciences.