Jim Baggett spent a lot of time on this old tractor cultivating his own vegetable breeding plots at the OSU Vegetable Research Farm. Photo: Randy Hopson
(By Carol Deppe)
I write to mark and honor the passing of James Baggett, Oregon State University vegetable breeder extraordinaire. Jim retired in 1995, and passed away on January 21, 2016. For his early history, his interesting well-rounded life, and his many hobbies and other activities, see his obituary in the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times. I speak here of Jim Baggett, the plant breeder.
Jim Baggett bred ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ and ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’, the latter still the most popular edible-podded pea in the world. These two varieties, by carrying resistance to a critical trio of pea diseases (pea wilt, powdery mildew, and pea enation mosaic virus), made it possible to grow peas in the maritime NW from early spring through fall, thus transforming the maritime Oregon pea season harvest from two months to four or more—all the way from June through fall up until frost.
Jim’s variety ‘Oregon Giant Sugar’, another edible-podded pea with that same trio of disease resistances and the long maritime Northwest harvest window, has wrinkled seed and even bigger pods than ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’. The pods are delicious even after the seeds are full size. And since the walls of the pods are thick, and the seeds sweet, the pods, harvested when the seeds are full size, have the sweetness of a snap pea. I consider ‘Oregon Giant Sugar’ a new class of pea, a “flat-snap.” That is, it is as sweet as a snap pea, but is much bigger than any snap pea, and of a shape that is handier to eat with slivers of cheese or to use as a dipper. ‘Oregon Giant Sugar’ has huge leaves that can scrounge enough light to grow vigorously even from overcast cold winter skies. It overwinters readily in Willamette Valley from an early October planting. It is outrageously productive in both conventional and organic systems. The pea pods, when fully filled, actually pause and sit on the vine for several days before commencing dry-down, thus providing an unusually large harvest window. And the flavor of ‘Oregon Giant Sugar’ is unexcelled.
‘Oregon Giant Sugar’, an edible-podded pea, has wrinkled seed that allows it to be harvested when peas are fully developed for maximum size and sweetness. Photo: Carol Deppe
Jim also bred the bush snap pea ‘Cascadia’, and shelling peas, including ‘Oregon Trail’. His tomato varieties include ‘Gold Nugget’, ‘Oregon Eleven’, ‘Oregon Spring’, ‘Santiam’, ‘Siletz’, ‘Legend’, and others. And, continuing work started by his predecessor Tex Frazier, Jim bred and released improved versions of Blue Lake bush beans, a major commercial processing crop in Oregon. He also bred lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, ornamental corn, peppers, and squash.
Jim bred the two winter squash varieties ‘Sugar Loaf’ and ‘Honeyboat’. These were the very first tan delicata varieties, and they took C. pepo sugar content, dry matter content, fine-grained texture, and flavor to new levels. I recall Jim’s typically unpretentious response when I asked how he bred these varieties. It went something like this: “I was growing a field of delicatas, and one plant turned up with this tan-colored fruit. I said, ‘Huh? That’s different.’ So I saved the seed. Of course, we had not selfed it, and the tan was dominant, and the color doesn’t appear until the fruits are fully mature. So it was some time before we could get the tan pure. The higher sugar content, higher dry matter content, and special flavor was a complete accident.” Not totally an accident in reality. Jim conducted taste tests as he bred his varieties. And he had his own tricks. For example, he always included an acorn squash in his taste tests of C. pepo squash. If you liked the acorn, he threw your results away. It meant you had no taste buds.
During the last decade or more of Jim’s career, the university was putting pressure on him to PVP his releases—that is, to put intellectual property restrictions on them via the Plant Variety Protection Act. Jim refused. He was a staunch advocate of the position that plant germplasm must belong to everyone and be completely free of restrictions of any sort. The university could not budge him. This position undoubtedly cost Jim with respect to fame and reputation. AAS awards are a particular feather in the cap of a vegetable breeder. And many of Jim’s varieties would undoubtedly have won, had he entered them. However, AAS requires winners to pay a percent of world seed sales to the organization for a number of years. With a public domain release, you don’t control the seed, so can’t do that. So because of his belief in public ownership of and full rights to use seed, Jim never received AAS awards for any of his vegetables. Jim simply shrugged off participation in AAS, and never wavered in his insistence upon releasing all his varieties as public domain.
When Jim retired, OSU did not immediately fill his position. Powers that Were decided they wanted a genetic engineer, not a traditional plant breeder. Everyone from the bean processing industry and the NW-based seed companies to ordinary gardeners rose up in outrage, and insisted that OSU and the state of Oregon needed a broad-based traditional vegetable breeder. The ultimate result was the Baggett-Frazier Chair of Vegetable Breeding, the position that Jim Myers now occupies. Jim Baggett, when he became the OSU vegetable breeder, took over and continued Tex Frazier’s work on bush beans and other crops while expanding into additional new projects. Jim Myers has done the same with Jim Baggett’s work. So vegetable breeding projects at OSU have, for three generations now, transcended the life of any one breeder, with each breeder honoring and continuing the work of his predecessor.
Jim was generous with his time and knowledge. I do not mourn him, because he led a full and rich life. I do, however, feel the need to stop and remember him, and so honor his life and his work. And I will remember him every time I eat Oregon Giant Sugar peas all the way through summer, or my own tan delicata variety ‘Candystick Dessert Delicata’, which traces back to Baggett varieties. Or whenever I humbly acknowledge in my own breeding of my own varieties just how much of it is accident, or the idea of the plants themselves rather than the breeder.
Jim was on the front line early in the battle to maintain public control over food crop seed. We in the Open Source Seed Initiative who continue this battle walk in his footsteps.
Oregon plant breeder and author Carol Deppe breeds open source vegetable varieties for superior flavor, vigor and productivity in organic systems, and human survival for the next thousand years. She is owner of Fertile Valley Seeds as well as a member of the OSSI board. Her books include Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving (2nd ed), The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times, and The Tao of Vegetable Gardening: Cultivating Tomatoes, Greens, Peas, Beans, Squash, Joy, and Serenity. Visit her website at http://www.caroldeppe.com/.