DOTT, PA. -- A visitor came recently from California, bearing gifts of wine from a vintner friend of the farmer's and the challenge was to find a proper response.
The farmer could not offer an "estate reserve" or some other vineyard delicacy, so he turned instead to a small packet of seeds that he had carefully saved during the summer for replanting in 1991.
This seemed the best and most meaningful response imaginable.
These were the seeds for an exquisite European sweet pepper that the farmer feels very possessive about. He selects out the finest of these peppers each year, saves the seeds and holds them closely lest his competitors get any ideas.
As the farmer drank his gift wine (a superb cuve'e, it turned out), he thought about his growing obsession with seeds of all kinds and how they have come to dominate much of what he does in the truckpatch.
The seeds, after all, are the source of life for his plants and while the farmer does not begin to understand the deep mystery of their power, he views them with increasing respect and even reverence.
The farmer sees part of his work here to be a good host for his seeds. It is his job to cosset them with healthy soil, water and fertilizer and to keep them free enough of intrusive weeds to assure that they can do what they were intended to do.
Spring, summer or fall, the farmer never fails to clutch with emotion at the sight of first emergence of his newly planted seeds. The thrill is so intense that the farmer often squanders precious time just to visit his most recent plantings to check for emergence. He will drop to hands and knees, looking intently for the first sprouts.
The success of planting has to do with the financial security of the truckpatch, obviously, but it is more. The emergence of those first seedlings is an important sort of affirmation that the farmer has done something right.
There is a tendency to take all of this very personally and when a crop fails, the farmer is usually wont to become despondent and to blame his own ineptitude for the refusal of his seeds to germinate.
Last spring, for example, when it seemed the weather was ideal, he put in the first of his green bean plantings. It was warm enough and the rain was abundant at the right time, but only one out of many thousands of the bean seeds germinated.
He blamed himself instantly, surmising that he had been too early or that the ground had been too wet. As a precaution, though, he used no more of that particular expensive batch of seeds because he feared another failure.
There was no early crop, but nature was generous. Later plantings of other bean varieties did better than ever before. They were so productive, in fact, that when a fall labor shortage developed, the farmer was forced to simply abandon the patch because of lack of time.
It was a painful act, seemingly insensitive to those seeds' desire to be of use and the farmer felt badly about it.
This winter, contemplating another early spring bean planting, the farmer announced that he would give those leftover seeds one more chance. His partner wisely insisted that they be put through germination tests before plans were locked in place.
Virtually none of the beans germinated and so, with heavy heart, the farmer relegated the seeds to his compost heap along with other peas and corn that also flunked the test.
If the seeds hold sway over his fortunes in the warm months, it is no less true in the off season. Much of the farmer's idle time in the cold months is devoted to devising planting schemes for the new year, studying old and new information about vegetable varieties and deciding which of these would work in this part of the world.
This is the time of year when literally dozens of seed catalogues fall into the farmer's hands, each seeming to promise a more bounteous crop than the other and each trumpeting the glories of all the new hybrid varieties that seed scientists spend years perfecting.
The farmer himself spends much time weighing the supposed benefits of all these new products, but he knows also that seeds are huckstered no less vigorously than laundry detergents or new cars. And he must be acutely aware of costs -- the same varieties often have wildly differing prices for no apparent reason. So he must proceed with caution, for he has come to understand that last year's seed marketing sensation may turn out to be this year's flop. There is nothing like the collective experience of farmers and gardeners to tell the breeders where they've gone astray.
One of the farmer's suppliers admitted ruefully in a recent mailing that the new hot pepper he had spent so long to develop and that he had ballyhooed relentlessly had been a marketing failure. It is gone from the 1991 catalogue, but perhaps to compensate, the breeder has brought back by popular demand a Japanese squash that earlier was banished from the warehouse.
And so it goes with dozens of varieties, some seemingly developed with no thought of practicality. They are here today, gone tomorrow. Just when the farmer becomes comfortable with a new sweet corn or pepper or tomato, it often will vanish from sight.
Sometime ago, after much searching, the farmer found the "right" sweet corn, a variety called Wonderful. Here finally was a corn that was worth growing. But it has disappeared from the catalogues, despite the farmer's assiduous search for it each winter. In the interim, the farmer grows no sweet corn at all.
There is value to all of the study and all of the poring over the catalogues, for the farmer must know which new varieties have been bred with disease or pest resistance in mind, which of the new things may finally be adapted for growing in his climate.
He will try many of the new ones and he will drop some others that did not meet his standards during earlier trials. He has still others on his just-one-more-chance list for 1991. And he will retain those that performed well and that sold well in years past.
His best friends, though, will be those nonhybrid varieties that he has been able to save and grow with success. Not exactly estate reserve, in the vintner friend's language, but gifts just the same.
Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.