Welcome to Cultivariable! My name is William Whitson and I breed plants. Cultivariable is my business, where I sell the plants that I breed and, miraculously, seem to be making a living at it. I breed plants for fun, because I am interested in discovering the possibilities. I’m not changing the world here. My discoveries are not going to feed the starving masses, save us from climate change, or expand the frontiers of science, but they might feed you if you grow them. This is mostly a one-man show, meaning that I do everything from weeding to stuffing envelopes alongside the actual breeding work.
I don’t select new varieties because they are objective improvements on what already dominates the market. That is certainly fine if it happens, but I select varieties because I think they’re neat. If you want a great, big, round, white potato, go to the grocery store. If you want a small, oddly-shaped potato in a range of pretty colors and different flavors, you’re in the right place. If you think that you would like to breed a weird and wonderful vegetable of your own, you are also in good company. In addition to my varieties, I offer genetically diverse seeds that you can use in your own breeding projects and provide a lot of information about the crops that I work with.
My breeding work is conventional, meaning that I am not doing genetic engineering (GMOs). I don’t really have anything against genetic engineering, but it isn’t something that I could realistically do, even if I wanted to. Most of what I do is just hand pollination between chosen varieties and selection of the best resulting progeny. This is really no different than what Luther Burbank was up to more than a century ago, though perhaps better informed by the great bulk of science produced in that time.
I am mostly interested in root and tuber crops. This wasn’t a decision, but more of an evolutionary process. It turns out that root crops do a lot better in my climate than most things, so more of my root vegetable breeding projects survived. I also focus mostly on clonally-propagated crops. Once again, this wasn’t intentional, but these crops require a particular set of skills to manage and there is some economy in specializing in crops that share the same techniques. I mostly work with minor crops that are not commonly grown in this country and that have limitations that require breeding work to overcome. I spend most of my time on five crops: ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius), oca (Oxalis tuberosa), and Andean potato (Solanum tuberosum subsp. andigenum), but I am working at least aspirationally with about thirty species.
Most of what I am doing is experimental. I am not breeding varieties to be grown on large acreage. I am mostly breeding varieties for home growers and small market gardeners. Most of the crops that I work with are not particularly suited to mechanical harvest. They are typically cultivated and harvested by hand. In the field, I grow with minimal inputs (generally just annual additions of compost) and without pesticides or herbicides. I grow this way because I am breeding plants and subjecting them to problems like pests and weed competition helps in selecting the most resilient varieties. Consequently, my varieties should perform well under organic conditions.
I grow hundreds of varieties, all in small quantities. I can’t sell you a hundred pounds of seed tubers or even ten pounds in most cases. My goal is not to supply farm-scale plantings. I serve more as a sort of private gene bank. Most of the tubers multiply at least 10 to 1, so it only takes a year to turn a small packet into a much larger planting. Most of my breeding work takes place on a bit more than an acre. I have a few acres more of overflow, but that is typically more space than I need because it is only possible to pay proper attention to a certain number of plants. For me, that number appears to be about 15,000. Because my space and attention are limited, varieties come and go. If you see something you like, buy it, because it may not be back next year or ever again.
Cultivariable is located on the central coast of Washington state. The climate is dry in the summer and wet the rest of the year. We get about three times as much rain as Seattle, most of it between October and May. Because we are close to the ocean, freezes are usually short and we occasionally go the entire year without a hard frost. The temperature rarely rises above 75 F (24 C) and the warmest temperatures usually happen early in the year – in May. After that, inland heat draws in the fog and the summer tends to be cool and gray.
We have a small greenhouse and laboratory and the lab work is taking an increasing amount of my time. In the lab, I maintain varieties in tissue culture and perform pathogen testing and cleanup, which turns out to be quite important with crops that are propagated clonally. They accumulate viruses over time and require cleanup. The alternative is to preserve them in tissue culture before they are ever exposed so that you always have a clean source from which to restart. This is becoming a big part of my work, because it reduces otherwise unmanageable complexity.
That’s probably a pretty good picture. The root and tuber sales season usually begins in December and wraps up by May. Seeds are available whenever they are in stock. There is a lot of information on this web site, both about how the plants work and how the business does. I recommend that you take the time to read as much as you can. I try to answer questions proactively since I am often not that good at responding to them in a timely fashion.
Thanks for visiting!