New Product Dreamtimes

I heard Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak talk about research a few days ago.  In the anxiety surrounding the retirement of Steve Jobs, he responded to the reporter’s query about the possible uncertainties of new product timelines:

“Oh, everyone at Apple works very far in advance—way into the future—like 1 to 1½ years!”

Apparently, agriculture and horticulture are rocket science compared to software research.  In fact, animal and plant breeders may have been the very first scientific researchers.

“We need more docile cows that won’t run away—can we breed them for shorter legs?”

“Whoa—it’s freezing!  We need sheep with longer rather than shorter hair—where are those really ugly long-hairs?”

Imagine the first food testers.  “Oops, it looks like that berry is fatal.  What about the one over there?”  They probably used animals first, or so one would hope.  Probably the long-legged and shorthaired ones.

Hybridization—the selective breeding of plants and animals for desirable traits—is mankind’s original, pre-manufacturing creative act.  The mere process of choosing one group of plants over another—by replanting the seeds from one group, thus enabling it to thrive over the other—results in these new plants becoming a distinct “breed” or domesticated race.  No factory required.  New age gurus like Paul Hawken and Bill McDonough are neither “new” nor especially guru-like.  The ancient remains the avant-garde.

It’s astonishing to consider how long plant breeding takes, compared to the freeze-dried, instantly prepared, wizardly hi-tech creations of today.  On the one hand, changes and variations occur quickly in plants, considering that they are natural phenomena.  Change is built in, like a mechanical spring.  Yet the annual cycle dominates breeding in the temperate zones.  Thus, most genetic research takes many years, depending on the genus as well as the breeder’s ability.  I know a cherry breeder who is scheduled to release later in her career a new cultivar that her PhD adviser began working on when he was her age—over 60 years for a single new introduction from two of the world’s best cherry breeders.

A new pot cyclamen averages 10 years of constant attention, while the tuberous-rooted begonia takes about 12 years.  On the more optimistic end, an experimental pansy breeder can introduce a new cultivar in about 3 to 4 years.  Tomatoes average 4 to 5 years, bell peppers 5 to 6 years and cucumbers and squash 7 to 8 years.  Our recent Hellebores took 13 years—from the first selections in 1993 to the introductions in 2006.  (Yet, consider how inexpensive flowers and vegetables are.)

Therefore, most, if not all, breeding companies try to cut these expensive product development cycles in half by using nurseries in the southern hemisphere to double up generations per year.  They “grow out” selections every six instead of twelve months—and spend a lot of time flying back and forth to Peru, Chile, South Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

So when Mr. Wozniak assured reporters that Apple would likely sail smoothly with 1-2 year new product development horizons, he reminded me of the profound genius and patience that go into plant breeding.  Perhaps the hi-tech folks could learn from the horticultural sciences.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 at 8:59 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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9 Responses to “New Product Dreamtimes”

  1. Robbie Ann Montgomery said:

    Your articles are not only thought provoking, they are very amusing. I’m old enough to appreciate tongue-in-cheek humor. Are you originally from the South? Keep up the good work. Robbie Ann

  2. TC said:

    Gardenology will never keep pace with technology.


    And there are still hordes that don’t believe in evolution. I guess we just have to ignore them. Evidence doesn’t seem to make a dent in their armor. Robert

  4. Barb Sullivan said:

    That’s amazing, I never knew it took that many years to create a new plant type.
    Hellebores 13 yrs wow!!
    Now I guess I better understand why some plants are higher priced then others.
    Yet, I will better appreciate when I am able to buy an beautiful inexpensive flower or vegetable plant. Thanks

  5. joe morin said:

    I enjoy your thoughts

  6. David said:

    I am into grape breeding, sort of a medium long term project. At least a bit faster turn over than tree fruits. I find I have to wait about 3 years in the PNW to get a fruit set on the new vine, after planting and then it takes another couple of years to see what the cluster size will become. Not a good hobby to start at retirement!
    Still, it is sad that you have a hard time overcoming the ‘status quo’ of consumer familiarity with the tried and true. For our region the ‘tried and true’ seldom perform well. Our climate has not been exploited by fruit breeders with the exception of Raspberries and Strawberries.
    Vitis is a very rich and diverse genus, which has only in the past 100 years, been truly exploited for breeding efforts.
    There is a lot that could be done, and should be done, but a certain ‘Vinifera Only’ mindset seeks to freeze us into inertia.
    Well, if nothing else, I have some awsome and adapted grapes for the Puget Sound.

  7. Beth Hickman said:

    I have worked at both flower breeding (my first career) and software development (my current career.) They require the same mindset – breaking down problems into small steps. Programming gives much quicker feedback and provides more comfortable working conditions, as well as a greater supply of jobs. Still, I miss working with plants full-time.

  8. fran said:

    Very well put. Enjoyed reading. Thank You

  9. Joyce said:

    Thank you for that. Exceptionally informative. I have often wondered how new plants just appeared. I knew it must take years then of course the market may not like it, if it is not the colour of the week. A very risky business plant breeding Joyce

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