Linux for Lettuce

Revolutionizing American agribusiness from the ground up, one seed at a time

From a distance, Jim Myers looks like an ordinary farmer. Most autumn mornings, he stands thigh-deep in a field of wet broccoli, beheading each plant with a single, sure swipe of his harvest knife. But under his waders are office clothes, and on his wrist is an oversized digital watch with a push-button calculator on its face. As his hand cuts, his eyes record data: stalk length and floret shape, the purple hue of perfect heads and the silver specks that foretell rot. At day’s end his broccoli goes to the food bank or the compost bin—it doesn’t really matter. He’s there to harvest information.

Myers is a plant breeder and professor of genetics at Oregon State University. The broccoli in his field has a long and bitter story, which he told me last September at the university’s research farm. We sat at a picnic table under a plum tree that had dropped ripe fruit everywhere; around our feet, the little purple corpses hummed with wasps that had crawled inside to gorge on sweet flesh. Myers has dark hair and dark eyes that are often set behind tinted glasses. In public, he rarely registers enough emotion to move the thick mustache framing his mouth. Still, as he talked about the broccoli his voice buckled, and behind those shadowy lenses his eyes looked hard and tense.

In 1966, a breeder named Jim Baggett—Myers’s predecessor at Oregon State—set out to breed a broccoli with an “exserted” head, which meant that instead of nestling in the leaves the crown would protrude on a long stalk, making harvest easier. The method he used was basic plant breeding: Mate one broccoli with another, identify the best offspring, and save their seed for the next season. Repeated over decades by Baggett and then Myers, this process produced the broccoli in the field that day. The heads were so nicely exserted, sparrows used them as a perch.

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