As he strolls through a trial garden, sprouting tomatoes and peppers at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pa. (pop. 17,619), owner George Ball feels as if he's walking on hallowed ground.
"This was the home of the creator of the American vegetable," says Ball, 56, about the farm where W. Atlee Burpee and his namesake seed company developed hundreds of vegetable varieties, including Iceberg lettuce in 1894, Golden Bantam yellow sweet corn in 1902, Fordhook bush lima beans in 1907, and Big Boy tomatoes in 1948.
"Burpee thought we needed to grow vegetables based on what would work in America instead of what worked in an ancestors garden in Holland," says Ball, who in 1991 bought the seed company headquartered in nearby Warminster (pop. 31,383). "Farmers were growing cultivars from Europe–and a normal day in Europe is a shady day."
Through selective breeding and hybridization, Burpee adapted European seed stock for growing conditions in the United States and grew W. Atlee Burpee & Co. into the largest mail-order seed company in the nation. These days, the business is enjoying a growth spurt–a 20 percent sales increase last year and at least another 20 percent projected this year–as more people turn to home vegetable gardening to save money at the supermarket.
"Whenever the economy is down, we see a spike in seed sales," says Ball, citing an upsurge of first-time gardeners. "For every dollar you invest in a garden, you get an average of $25 worth of store-bought produce, so it's an excellent return. Plus, you can't buy that kind of flavor at the grocery."
The company's founder made a good investment as well in 1876 when, at age 18, he borrowed $1,000 in seed money from his mother and launched the business to sell the chickens, turkeys and other farm fowl bred at his family's Philadelphia home. Burpee expanded to breed collie dogs, sheep and hogs and, when livestock customers complained about the poor quality of vegetable seeds, turned his scientific mind to plants. In 1877, he introduced a new cabbage variety.
"Burpee was first to guarantee his seeds," says Chris Romas, 44, president of the 110-employee Burpee company. "It was a seedy business, and a salesman would sell you seeds that wouldn't germinate."
On scouting trips in Europe and the United States, Burpee found the best vegetables and flowers, then tested, selected and produced the seeds at Fordhook Farm. Workers dried and cleaned seeds in a massive two-and-a-half-story frame building, one of only a few surviving Victorian-era seed barns.
Today, the company contracts with more than 100 growers across the globe to lessen the risk of weather catastrophes, and works with 30 breeders on five continents to develop vegetables and flowers with specific traits.
"Flavor is always the most important," says Grace Romero, 60, Burpee's head horticulturist.
Harvested seeds are shipped in 100-pound burlap bags to the factory in Warminster, where machines fill and seal 75 seed packets a minute. Burpee produces more than 100 million packages each year, which are sold through mail orders, the company's website and more than 15,000 retail stores.
Burpee's silent salesman, as the founder dubbed it, is its annual garden catalog, mailed to 2.5 million customers on the day after Christmas. This year's edition offers the world's first sweet, seedless tomato.
"It's one of the biggest breakthroughs we've made, and we've made a lot of them," Ball says.
Visit www.burpee.com for more information.