Joe Schirmer is like a lot of American farmers in that he buys seeds that are owned by Monsanto. Yet unlike your average Midwestern grower spreading hybrid corn or soy seed across hundreds if not thousands of acres, Schirmer’s Dirty Girl Produce is an organic operation centered on 40 acres near Santa Cruz, Calif. And if that sounds like an odd marriage to you—Monsanto and organic produce grown not far from a city that’s been hard-pressed to give up on the dream of 1968—then you haven’t tasted a dry-farmed Early Girl tomato.
When grown without any irrigation, these red, round tomatoes turn into something so intensely flavored that it seems unfair to call them by the same name as the wan, pink orbs sold at the supermarket in the dead of winter. But unlike other popular heirloom varieties that you might find at the farmers market, the seeds for which can be produced by just about anyone, Early Girls are an F1 hybrid, the offspring of two parent plants carefully crossed in a greenhouse. And since 2005, when Monsanto bought the fruit and vegetable seed company Seminis, the ag behemoth has controlled that process.
But for the last five years Schirmer has been doing something that, if he were a corn or soybean grower, would be illegal: Starting by growing seeds he saved from a hybrid plant, then selecting the best plants from that generation and saving the seeds for the following year, he is slowly developing his own open-pollinated version of the Early Girl, dubbed the Dirty Girl.
“The selection process isn’t so much me stepping up on a political soapbox,” Schirmer told me on the phone today, his voice accented with salt and sand, the accent of someone you can’t imagine is not a surfer. “It’s really out of a practical sense for me, you know; it’s just to have seed security. Because what if one year I can’t get the seeds?”
That happened a couple of years ago, when the overseas seed production was hit with blight, according to Schirmer, and none of the seed made it back to the States. There’s also worry that Monsanto will discontinue the Early Girl, which despite its cult status among small growers and chefs in California, isn’t widely planted on commercial farms. The company told me as recently as last year that those fears are unfounded.
Schirmer is also hoping he can improve on the Early Girl in ways that will better suit the variety, which was first promoted to home gardeners for its early ripening tendency by Burpee Seeds in 1975, for both the climate and the style of farming at Dirty Girl Produce.
The Early Girl wasn’t bred to be a dry-farmed tomato. It was bred to be a good early tomato, probably for somewhere on the East Coast, he says.
“I figure if I grow it out under the conditions of dry farm, then I’ll be able to select one that actually performs better as a dry-farm [tomato] and specifically for a dry farm.” He’s also hoping that he’ll end up with a plant that’s resistant to blight, which is a major problem for growers in foggy Santa Cruz.
One thousand Dirty Girl plants will be grown on the farm this year, up from the 100 Schirmer started his breeding project with five years ago. In comparison, he grows 35,000 of the traditional hybrid. Although the Dirty Girl's commercial production remains small, this year will mark the first time it will be available to the somewhat broader public as a plant: Flatland Flower Farm will have 150 starts to sell at its stand at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market starting this week.
And what does notoriously litigious Monsanto think of all of this? According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the company is totally cool with it.
“We hope this farmer is successful, and we're really glad there's so much excitement around the 'Early Girl,' " Carly Scaduto, the company’s communications manager, told the paper. She said Monsanto doesn’t have plant-variety protection, the garden-variety version of copyright, for the hybrid, which means it’s essentially in the public domain.
And Schirmer, despite unchaining the beloved tomatoes from the notorious company, makes it clear that the feeling is mutual. “I’m not anti-Monsanto, anti–Early Girl, anti-hybrid at all,” he said.