Saturday, January 28, 2017

W. Atlee Burpee Company

Washington Atlee Burpee (1858-1915) started young in his interest in poultry breeding and other farm animals, included collies and finally seeds.  There is much lore surrounding the sixteen year old developing expert in genetics (see but one thing certain, he was to become a highly intelligent business man.

By the 1880s, the W. Atlee Burpee Company was supplying seed as well as livestock.  His guarantee of satisfaction for one year from date of purchase and the beauty of his catalogs contributed to success.

Typically he used immigrant watercolorists from Germantown, PA to paint the pictures of the plants you could grow from his seeds.

A problem that still exists today, Burpee found the seeds he brought from Europe had poor germination and were susceptible to diseases because the United States is mostly further south than European countries.  Enter hybridization or selective breeding for desirable characteristics.  (Burpee created the first hybrid vegetables.)

From his large world-famous plant development facility, their experiments produced the best European vegetables and flowers that had been improved and adapted to American growing conditions.  By the 1890s, Burpee was the largest seed company in the world. 

The early catalogs (Burpee’s Farm Annual) had mostly farm crops including the supplement covering animals and tools.

Luther Burbank, brilliant eccentric wizard of multiple plant crosses, was a cousin.  After Burbank’s death, Burpee acquired the rights to his seeds, experimental work and breeding records.

After W.A. Burpee’s death, his son, David became head of the firm.  Burpee was the innovator of the “War Garden” in WWI and the “Victory Garden” in WWII.   Both credited with bringing seeds and family gardens to America.

Hybridization was emphasized at Burpee bringing an entirely new dimension to horticulture.  (Burpee’s Big Boy tomato, Crenshaw Melon and the Red and Gold Marigold are some of the first.)  

Flowers were David Burpee’s great love and his favorite was the marigold.  The story of his hybridization of marigolds is a long and exciting tale.  Add to that the innovations and experiments of ongoing importance and the list of Burpee introductions fills pages.  Their ability to withstand the changes brought on by wars, isolation, disease and theft has proved valuable.

It was David Burpee who officially enlisted the support of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois in the movement to name the marigold the national flower.  Burpee's marketing methods are lessons for any business to learn.

There are reams of historical documentation on the breeding work done by the Burpee company.  Still more on the shelves of today’s stores with the best of their seeds.

W. Atlee and David Burpee were both civic minded and used their business to help Americans feed their families with the best seeds available.  We should be grateful for those innovations as we plant our seeds and harvest our produce.

By the 1970s, Burpee was regularly introducing new varieties from outside programs as well as their own.  In 1970, David Burpee sold his company to General Food.  In 1979, the company was acquired by ITT.  The Company merged with the George J. Ball, Inc. company in 1991. 

The Smithsonian Gardens (in its Archives of American Gardens) has the business records (including seed catalogs) of W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

As with most old seed company catalogs and displays, Burpee’s are very collectable. There are loads of other information out there especially about their own introductions.

Friday, January 27, 2017

D. M. Ferry & Co.

Dexter M. Ferry (1833-1907) was a businessman from Detroit, Michigan who founded D. M. Ferry & Co., at one time the largest seed company in the world.

How many of you have heard of Mr. Ferry or his seeds?  Had I not been looking at pictures of old seed catalogs I’m not sure I would have bothered to dig a little deeper.

I'm glad I did because Ferry is the kind of rags to riches story or better yet, work and succeed story we’ve come to identify as American.

His father died when he was three and at 16 (along with going to school in the winter) he began working at his Uncle’s farm for $10 a month.  At 18, he secured a position as an errand boy at a stationery firm.  He advanced to salesman and then bookkeeper. 

At 23, he became a junior partner at a seed growing company.  When Ferry became full owner, it became D. M. Ferry & Co.  He introduced several innovations in the seed-vending business:  Sold only fresh seeds which increased germination rates and established a reputation for quality.  He was among the first to sell seeds in small packets.

The company survived and even prospered after a warehouse fire taking out one million dollars of their stores.  In the early 1900s, the company was doing over two million dollars in sales.

They grew their own seeds on extensive land holdings.  The operation included greenhouses, hybridization operations, large barns for horses and farming equipment, houses for employees, packaging and distribution buildings and more.

In addition, he shared his business acumen with many companies and philanthropic organizations.  A tale of hard work, intelligence and success.

Ferry merged his company with C.C. Morse & Co. in 1930 and it became the Ferry-Morse Company.  It became the largest seed distribution company in the world.  In 1981, it became part of France’s Groupe Limagrain, the largest seed producer in the world.  In 2005, Groupe Limagrain sold Ferry-Morse to Jiffy International (a Norwegian Company) and still sells seeds.

Memorabilia from D. M. Ferry & Co. is highly prized and collectable.  In addition, there are many historical collections available for viewing.      

Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's All in the Numbers

Over Christmas I noticed a couple of packaging changes:

  • A can of Campbell's soup is now smaller but the price is the same as the older size (which is no longer available.)
  • The individual kisses in Hershey's Kisses are smaller but the price is the same as the original size.

Companies can package as they choose.  As consumers, we need to understand these changes mean we are getting less for our money even if it looks the same.  Cereals, cake mixes and a whole host of other grocery items have been doing this for years.  Sadly, few consumers realize the difference.

One thing to look at this Spring is how many seeds you're getting in a packet.  That 99 cent packet of radish seeds looks like a good deal.  If that packet has twelve seeds, it's not a good deal.  

The seed company must list the weight of the contents but who of us knows how much 5 or 50 seeds weigh?  My advice is gently feel the packet.  Take a cheap packet and a more well-known company's packet and see if one is significantly different.  Is the cheaper a half - third or forth smaller.  Do the math!

An example:
The smaller packet is $0.99 and the larger packet is $1.96.
The smaller packet has one forth the seeds of the larger.
Multiply the cost of the smaller packet times 4.
4 x .99 = $3.96
In this example, the little packet is not a good deal.

What if you don't need lots of seeds?  Share with other gardeners.  Or, buy from nurseries that have bulk supplies and get just the amount you want.  (Some local and on-line nurseries will tell you exactly how many seeds you are getting - I appreciate that service.)

I've also found seeds from more well-known companies have a higher germination rate.  

Another little hint is to look at the stamped date on the seed packets.  If they are older than this summer, they will not germinate very well if at all.

Check to make sure you're not getting debris in with the seeds.  Since they are usually sold by weight, having sticks and junk in the package means you're paying for more than seeds.

I think one of the reasons new gardeners get discouraged is they buy cheap or old seeds.  Do yourself a favor, start with good healthy seeds.  Not the total answer to perfect plants but certainly a good beginning.  

(As a side note:  I've noticed the sunflower seeds we're getting to feed the birds are now full of junk.  The company is saving on production costs by not cleaning and getting more for less by selling junk as part of the weight.)   

Pictures are of old D. M. Ferry & Co's seed catalogs - truly works of art!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Really? Really?

For the 48 (as of this writing) Democrat Representatives who’ve publicly said they are boycotting the Presidential Inauguration:  Really?  Really?

I support your freedom to go to the inauguration or not.  But think about this:

Approximately half the US population voted for the President-elect.  That translates to your thumbing your nose at the choice of those Americans.  (And we’re not – again - getting into the electoral vote vs. head count here.)

Of those who voted in this election, a majority voted out the Democrat party’s elected officials and didn’t elect many Democrats running for the first time.  Do you not understand how that translates into dissatisfaction with the Democratic party as a whole?

When Bernie Sanders was visibly sidelined by the Democratic political machine, did you really think his followers would blindly accept your candidates.  Those who desire a form of socialism are not eager to back a party that is more and more smacking of McCarthyism. 

Don’t you understand there is a large segment of the US voters who may be registered in one party, but who always vote their conscious and not a straight party ticket?  By pigeon holing everyone who voted against Clinton as barely being able to walk upright, you are alienating members of your own party or potential voters for your candidates in the future.

Voting against Clinton was not necessarily a vote against Obama.  Stop playing the race card in this election.  Clinton is no Obama.

The era where the voters put politicians on a pedestal is over – long over.  We go to work, we suck up the bad and try to make the business better.  You are not a celebrity; you are an elected business person.  Pull up your big girl/boy pants and go to work to make things better.  It’s called being a responsible working adult.

You do not have to go to the inauguration of your new boss but in the business world, publically boycotting the big welcome for a new boss would be such a huge mistake even the very newest and youngest employee would know better. 

Celebrities love/need to be in the limelight.  They can even begin to consider, because of their performance ability, their opinions are more relevant than the average voter.  Again, you are not a celebrity.  Your personal opinions really don’t matter; your representation of the people matters.

Can you grasp that your job description is not to boycott, not to hit every news service with your closely held opinions and not to alienate the other departments of the government.  Your job is to represent the people of your state.

If those of us who work in the business world threw tantrums every time we had to work for someone who has personality flaws, we would be fired in short order. Long time employees understand it’s necessary to work with all kinds of personalities.  Threats and childish behavior has no place in the work place.  We even say it has no place in schools, yet it’s evident among elected officials to the point it’s accepted as an attribute.

Let me be perhaps be the first to tell you a celebrity insulting me does not help your cause or make me change my mind and accept your politics or encourage me to vote for you next time. 

I vote for the person who does the job I hired them to do.  I vote Democrat, Republican, Independent and occasionally a write in.  The next time I vote, it will be based on that person’s job performance not their party.

And as a long time corporate employee, I vote for the person who has the ability and intelligence to work well with others to get the job done in a professional manner for the betterment of American.  Sound too lofty?  No, it’s good business.

When did teamwork go out of style for elected officials?  Kids in T-ball get it, kids playing Red Rover in grade school get it, the high school scholastic team gets it, college basketball teams get it, your local business persons get it – it’s time for that maturity to be put on the government’s playing field – now.

Boycotting the inauguration and all the other silly marches and whoopla on inauguration day is doing nothing but showboating.  If you disagree with your President elect, then get busy working and doing your job.  He’s from big business, work with him on a level he will respect.  The head of a large organization has to work with those he disagrees, he’s done it constantly in his work and he respects those that have firm opinions, have the facts and intelligence to make a plan and are capable of working with others.

I go back to my career and think of the times I disagreed with my bosses (and sometimes for good reason and quite strongly) and had I refused to work with them, refused to meet with them, threw tantrums, worked to create division among the employees or acted the jerk – seriously I would have been gone immediately – no severance – no gold watch – no pension – just out the door in a quick and ugly way.

Voters must wait four years to “out the door” if our officials perform poorly.  But nothing makes a vote choice firmer than grinding one’s teeth for four years watching the inept.

Elected officials please become business leaders to make America better, to pull us together and not divide.  Americans are begging our elected officials to work together – to act mature – to run our country’s business in a way that makes us stronger, better and proud even if we disagree.