Let It Grow Organic Gardens

And I resumed the struggle. -Vladimir

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Johnny's Catalog: A Review

The Johnny's Selected Seeds 2005 Commercial Catalog is thrusting itself into the nations mailboxes with the force and zeal of Operation Enduring Freedom, and it is none too late for a hungry literary public.
We've all come to expect nothing but excellence from our friends at Johnny's, and the 2005 catalog doesn't disappoint. There are some who claim that diversity is the cornerstone of sustainable farming, even of sustainable economics. Balderdash! exclaims this reviewer! Everything the grower needs for a bland, indistinct and tasteless garden can be found in these glossy 152 pages! Johnny's really brings farming into the 21st Century - no thought is required to use this catalog. Order from Johnny's and rest assured that you are growing the same varieties as every other brainless dolt in the business. Stick everything under your EZ-Up and go back to sleep.
Unusual varieties do sneak into these pages on occasion, but rest assured: Johnny's tireless staff has conducted exhaustive research to ensure the commercial viability of each and every item. Who will forget when they stunned the gardening world years ago by offering Carmona lettuce! Some objected, pointing out that a responsible seed company like Abundant Life had carried Carmona for years, keeping the variety alive and viable, and Johnny's only stepped when they smelled a buck. Clearer heads pointed out that Abundant Life should stop printing their catalog on recycled paper and include some fucking pictures! And stop sending all their profits to the third world and a bunch of Native Americans!
Red and purple carrots are the latest bandwagon that Johnny's has belatedly jumped onto. I've bought purple carrots from Scheeper's for years, since before they were discovered by yuppie chefs in Berkeley, and am pleased to learn that I will no longer have to send my business to a small company focused on rare and unusual varieties. Johnny's makes once stop shopping so easy! There are many small, family run, regional seed companies that spend years cultivating a market for a variety that Johnny's offers as soon as that variety goes mainstream. Some argue that small companies can't grow in such an environment. Did Sam Walton worry about such trivia?
There are some who claim that any small farmer who buys his seed from Johnny's deserves to have each and every one of his customers beat a path to the nearest Safeway. I say such critics deserve to be pummeled to death by an overpriced, sissy European hoe. There are some who claim that this great land has precious few seed companies committed to carrying rare varieties and promoting genetic diversity. I say, only carry a rare variety when the foul stench of a dollar bill settles in your canine nostrils. Some say Johnny's should use their untold millions to promote genetic diversity instead of sending everyone their insipid little mailings. I say, those whiners should be buried in Micro Mix. Some say Micro Mix is just sprouts that you left for too long. I say, it's a shrewd marketing scheme.
The natural world is in great debt to Johnny's for offering heirloom tomatoes. A whole page of them! Twelve varieties! Never let it be said that Johnny's is not doing it's part to preserve our biological heritage. And they even offer ... Brandywine! What a bold move! Perhaps not as inspired and provocative as Duchamp's 1917 decision to display Fountain, but close. Here, Johnny's demonstrates their usual leadership ....
And the ad copy in the catalog! Identifying heirloom tomatoes as "a special retail opportunity" leaves no doubt in the reader's mind as to exactly what this company stands for. But it does more, so much more. It reveals not only Johnny's self-serving, near-sighted business practices but also manages to reveal much about their customers.
What do they care about, the reader begs. What is important to them? The answer is clear.
The photography is up to Johnny's usual standards and the reader can rest assured that any seed purchased will grow into something that looks exactly like the vegetables pictured. The choice for the cover, however, left this reader puzzled. How does one interpret the road through the cornfield pictured on the 2005 cover? Is Johnny's claiming to be a middle-of-the road organization with no clear direction or purpose? Or is the girl stooped over on the road supposed to represent the small seed company, about to be slammed to oblivion by a runaway juggernaut? The separation between the two cornfields raises thought provoking questions. Is one field genetically engineered and the other not? If so, on which field is Johnny's model turning her back? While many questions remain unanswered, the reader cannot help but be reminded of the pathetically long amount of time it took Johnny's to sign the Safe Seed Pledge. While seed companies with integrity signed on immediately, Johnny's waited for the market research to come in.
Any way you interpret it, the cover photographs leave the reader unsatisfied. They don't come close to the tour de force published in the 2004 edition. The front cover, as I'm sure everyone remembers, showed a crew of Hispanic workers harvesting a field of green peppers, while the back cover featured two young women cutting flowers. Never has a seed company's place in the community been so nobly demonstrated in cover photographs, and one fears that it will be a long time before anyone comes close. The front cover photograph was a masterpiece of composition: the endless fields in the background leaving no doubt as to the corporate nature of the farm being worked, the vegetables being harvested, green peppers, boldly proclaiming that taste and flavor is not a consideration in this enterprise. The workers, occupying the foreground, brought the whole photo together. The expression on the face of the center worker seemed especially poignant. At first glance, his countenance seemed to say: "How merry I am to be toiling under the glorious sun, harvesting peppers grown with Johnny's seed!" On closer examination, however, one glimpses just a bit more. He also seems to say: "I'm completely fucked because I have brown skin."
The brilliance of this photo was matched by the back cover's offering. There, two attractive girls are seen frolicking in a field of flowers, giggling as they snip zinnias. Hard at work, they seem to proclaim: "Daddy's rich and sent us to college!"
This proved to be an image building coup for the folks at Johnny's, as we all recall. The industry rocked at the realization: corporate agri-business and market gardening trust babies alike, Johnny's bends over for 'em all!
Well, maybe not all. For some reason. Johnny's continues to offer lower prices to people who live in New England. It may be good news to the blue-bloods, but it is offensive to the rest of us. Stop being so snooty and offer one price across the board. Or, nation, as the case may be.
If that sounds like your kind of seed company, the 2005 catalog should make delightful winter evening reading. Or, you can click on the Seed Saver's Exchange link to the right.


  • At January 17, 2005 2:45 PM, Blogger rm said…

    Er, gracious!

    Hey, how come my catalogue just has a picture of Rob Johnson on the cover? Why are you so special?

    Did you see they're offering chickweed seed this year? You gonna buy any?

  • At January 18, 2005 7:03 AM, Blogger spiral said…

    If you need any extra sunflower seeds, I can hook you up. - CR


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