Once introduced, Americans invariably inquire what business you’re in. While foreigners find the question a bit crass, it’s second nature to us. The question reflects our work ethic on the one hand, and our democracy on the other: it’s not who you are but what you do that defines you. We mean business.
When you’re in seeds and plants, as I’ve been most of my life, your profession elicits a striking range of reactions. Ever a pragmatic breed, gardeners query me about heirloom seed varieties or boast about their bumper crop of Big Boy tomatoes. Teenagers and college kids will offer up a “That’s cool,” and amiably amble off. That’s cool.
Wall Street high-fliers—investment bankers, brokers and hedge fund profiteers, elaborately upholstered all—tend to regard my business as impossibly outmoded and arcane. Seeds? Plants? Do I, perhaps, belong to the Flat Earth Society as well?
When I’m at a social function—rare—I invariably find myself chatting with a Wall Street tribe member, replete in tailored suit, collar pin, rep tie and initialed shirt cuffs. Jared, let’s call him, since that’s always his name, is a player. A pink-cheeked master of the universe fluent in junk bonds, zero-coupon bonds, REITs and interest rate swaps; he knows what business is all about. His world is one where funds appear from somewhere, go somewhere else, and he pockets the difference.
Seeds clearly have no place in Jared’s business cosmology. Seeds aren’t things, and they aren’t even stylish, prestigious or luxury things. They make a humble showing in the land of high-end bling. Odd, since in some traditional cultures, they’re used as money; in others, these “botanical eggs” are collected rather like jewels.
Yet, for some reason, a packet of seeds fails to telegraph status and wealth quite as well as a Porsche, a Greenwich estate, a Cartier necklace or a daughter at Brown. In the realm of comestibles, even the rarest of heirloom vegetable seeds lack the impact of a vintage Chateau Talbot, truffle butter or Beluga caviar.
Jared hauls over his pal Nick, attired in the same tribal regalia, though with different initials on his cuff. “Nick, this is George. He’s in seeds.” They look me up and down, as if I were an exhibit in a natural history museum, their expressions a blend of amusement and disdain. I’m cool with that.
I look them over in turn. Wall Street wheeler-dealers are a curious mix of cockiness and terror. Their eyes dance around, as if always on the outlook for danger. They convey the wariness of fugitives, which they may be some day. I explain to them that seeds are God’s microchips: miniature devices programmed with information and algorithms to generate life. This fuddles them for a moment. Are they missing the next big thing? Or am I playing the players? Again I look them over—more closely this time.
Wall Street players like Jared and Nick would be a worthy subject for anthropological study. Their wardrobes provide a scaffolding to their worlds of flux and risk. Each element in their costume is a kind of announcement. The collar, a different color from the body of the shirt, declares its collarness. The collar pin indicates, should there be doubt, that the collar is not likely to collapse into confusion. The suspenders—striped or patterned—provide visible assurance that the gentlemen’s trousers are unlikely to abruptly fall about their knees.
The pocket square adorning the breast pocket—never to be used as a handkerchief—confirms the pocket is there, lest that detail pass you by. The oversized watch, with its dizzying dials and buttons, indicates the wearer is prepared to descend to the deepest depths of the ocean or sail about the galaxy, his watch accurate to the nanosecond. This highly evolved visual grammar lends an outward coherence, ironically, to a profession built on speculation and caprice, where, on any given day, the market can eat you alive.
Wall Street’s big risk takers tend to be men, their fearlessness buoyed by testosterone. Their restlessness, tensile nerves and daring are traits they share with male hunter-gatherers of pre-Agricultural times. In ancient times, the Wall Street adventurer’s derring-do might have enabled Jared to kill a lion with which to feed the tribe, or, conversely, turned him into a delicious dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Lion and their brood. The fear of the ages runs in his veins, assuaged right now by a quick succession of gin martinis.
I spot a friend across the room, or pretend I do. “Fellows,” I say momentously, as I ready to take my leave. I look each in the eye, and say his name, “Jared. Nick.” (Their monogrammed shirt cuffs prove useful here). “The future belongs to seeds.” Their pink faces flush crimson; they whoop with laughter.
Jared and Nick were, and perhaps remain, first-string players in the New Economy, a playground fueled by easy credit, speculation and other peoples’ money. Seeds rightly appeared to them as the barter of another era. And it’s true, the seed business has changed little in the last 500 years. The major shift in the last century has been the transition of the home garden from a necessity—how you feed the family—to a hobby for some, a passion for others.
A few steps into the 21st century, the role of the home garden has once again changed. Standing in my garden, I can almost hear the stampede of new and rededicated American gardeners. Outfitted in jeans, baseball caps and wellingtons, clutching their trowels, Americans pioneer their new frontier—their backyard garden.
Converging on the home garden is an extraordinary array of trends in tastes, health awareness, lifestyle and demographics—a phenomenon I call a “perfect storm of tipping points”. The Old Economy is new again.
The major catalyst, is, of course, the economy’s downward spiral. Americans are getting wise to the extraordinary savings they can reap, along with their tomatoes, peppers, green beans and squash. A home garden delivers reliable and extraordinary returns on your investment, a hundred dollars in seeds producing a harvest that would cost you $2,500 at your supermarket. A 25-to-1 return? Snap my striped suspenders!
In the last 10 years, Americans have grown exquisitely attuned to issues of nutrition and food safety. Their increasing insistence on food quality—optimally nutritious, fresh, flavorful and safe—is well-founded. The vegetables and fruit bought at the supermarket are picked prematurely, spend weeks in trucks and warehouses exposed to carbon monoxide and other contaminants, and frequently gassed to boost their colors. To purchase supermarket produce is to compromise on flavor, nutrition, texture and safety—while getting a swift kick in the budget.
The local food movement has built upon this kind of new awareness, and farmer’s markets are sprouting across the country. But why go to the farmer’s market when a few steps away is a garden bursting with fresh tomatoes, string beans and watermelons? It doesn’t get more local —or fresher—than this.
And in this world of iPhones, PCs, Twitter, 200 cable channels and over the top home entertainment centers, the garden suddenly appears as something new and delightful: a multidimensional, interactive realm of flavor, nourishment, fragrance, pleasure, beauty, recreation, sanctuary and self-realization.
At first, we are smitten with our glittering new techno-toys, only to relearn that these clever machines cannot provide what we really want—a sense of connection and authenticity. Welcome to the garden: it doesn’t get more real or connected than this.