It’s been a lousy growing season for Ken Taylor’s cantaloupes. The weather has been terrible — cool and wet, when it should have been hot and dry — and the leaves on the vines are browning and riddled with small holes from fungal disease.
Standing on his 70-acre organic farm on Île Perrot, about 30 miles west of Montreal, Taylor surveys the damage through a pair of thick-framed glasses. It’s late July, and there’s not much to see. Finally he spots a tiny cantaloupe. “This is basically what it looks like, off and on, all the way down: one fruit here and there.”
Those aren’t just any fruit. They’re specimens of the Montreal melon — a large and particularly hard-to-grow cantaloupe that Taylor saved from extinction. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Montreal melon was considered a delicacy. Sweet and juicy with hints of nutmeg, it has green flesh like a honeydew, but its exterior is netted, rather than smooth. According to Taylor, it’s probably Canada’s most famous heritage food.
“There wasn’t a Vancouver kiwi or a Halifax oyster,” he later said. “It was the Montreal melon!” While he acknowledges that other foods originated in Canada — the Laurentian turnip, for example — Taylor says nothing else had the melon’s renown.
“Russian caviar; champagne from Reims, France; and the Montreal melon — those were the three snob foods in the early 1900s,” Taylor says.
But when Taylor brought back the melon in the mid-'90s, hoping it could gain traction at that century’s end, too, he wasn’t motivated by nostalgia. He had something else in mind: that in a world where industrial farming has reduced us to eating a tiny fraction of the fruit and vegetable varieties we used to, genes from the past might be more important to our future than anyone realizes.
The Montreal melon would have remained lost to history if not for a simple but gnawing question that popped into food journalist Barry Lazar’s mind in 1991. “I live on a street called Old Orchard,” he recalled, “and I started to think, Why is this street called Old Orchard?”
Lazar plunged into research mode. Orchards had once thrived on the west side of Montreal, and he learned that his neighborhood, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG), had been considered “the fruit basket of Quebec.” One fruit in particular kept coming up in his research: the Montreal melon. The melons, which took a whole summer to mature, were huge, often weighing between 15 and 20 pounds, about the size of a Butterball turkey. They were either pumpkin- or football-shaped, depending on the strain, and grown mostly by two prosperous NDG farming families, the Décaries and the Gormans.
Montreal’s soil was rich in minerals, and NDG, located near four racetracks, was rich in horse manure. “We used to get big steaming loads of horse manure, dig a deep trench, and plant the melons on top,” Fred Aubin, a then-71-year-old melon farmer’s son, told the botanical magazine Seeds of Diversity in 2000.
In addition to having ample natural fertilizer, the farmland where the melon thrived occupied the western slopes of Mount Royal, all the way down to the St. Lawrence River, where there was good sun exposure and protection from harsh northwest winds.
After Burpee Seeds founder Washington Atlee Burpee encountered the melons at a Montreal market in August 1880, he introduced them to the rest of North America through his popular seed catalogue. Burpee’s catalogue described the melon as “remarkably thick ... melting, and of a delicious flavor” and touted it as the “best melon we’ve ever eaten.” Burpee even offered $50 cash prizes to whoever could grow the largest melons.
As word of the Montreal melon spread, demand grew. By the early 1900s, local farmers were sending regular shipments by train to New England and New York, where upscale restaurants and hotels put them on dessert menus and sold them for up to a dollar a slice — the equivalent of about $24 today. Because the melons were so large and thin-skinned, the flesh bruised easily. A woven-basket industry sprang up to protect them during transport, and they were packed in short, fine-stemmed hay.
The city took pride in its namesake fruit, and Lazar says that one was sent every year as a gift to the British throne. The Canadian Pacific Railway offered the melon in its formal dining cars, instructing staff to serve it “on cracked ice in a bread tray,” accompanied by a finger bowl.
Montreal’s famous crop was so profitable that at least one farmer hired an armed guard to protect his fields at night. By 1907 the melons could earn the farmers a couple thousand dollars per acre each season, around $49,000 in today’s dollars. In a 1908 report, the USDA took note of the “melon of unusual excellence,” its “fancy prices,” and the fact that “even at such prices, the Canadian growers are not able to supply the American demand.”
American seed companies started growing their own varieties of the melon, giving them names like Mammoth Montreal, Montreal Market, and Perfect Montreal. According to William Woys Weaver, author of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, the Montreal melon was more widely grown in New England, Canada, and the Upper Midwest than honeydew, cantaloupes, or any other muskmelon, “not only because of its large size but because it yielded the best-flavored melons for short-season gardens.”
But the melon’s heyday wouldn’t last. Like hundreds of fruit and vegetable varieties that thrived during the early 20th century, it didn’t survive the mid-century shift to industrial agriculture. It wasn’t an easy melon. It required a fair amount of coddling: watering, syringing, ventilating, lifting with a flat stone or shingle to prevent cracking or rot, and turning every few days to ensure uniformity of shape, color, netting, and ripening.
But perhaps its biggest enemy was urban development. Between 1914 and 1930, NDG’s population increased tenfold (from 5,000 to 50,000). Residential blocks, schools, and churches were built to accommodate the growth. Cars began replacing horses on the streets, and all but one of the racetracks gave way to development. Gone was the easy access to natural fertilizer for the melon fields, and the Montreal melon, Lazar says, “required a lot of fertilizer.”
The area’s urbanization continued through the postwar period, and the farmers eventually sold their melon land to developers. The Décaries sold off a large portion of theirs as early as 1923, for $275,000.
Over the next three decades, the melon quietly disappeared. By the early 1950s, Burpee’s seed catalog no longer offered its seeds. Today, the Décarie Expressway cuts across the land where the melons once grew.
When Lazar wrote about the Montreal melon for the Montreal Gazette in 1991, the melon was long gone not only from the city’s soil, but also from its collective memory.
Montreal poet and author Mark Abley, who was then a Gazette reporter, was riveted by Lazar’s discovery. “I just thought, This is amazing,” recalls Abley, who says his passions include “knowing about weird biological, zoological facts and things.” He wondered how such a popular fruit could have disappeared so completely.
Abley had researched endangered species before. He knew about a stick insect, long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific; a fish that had been known only from its fossil record until 1938, when it was dredged up in the Indian Ocean by an angler; and a bird that was thought to have vanished from Bermuda shortly after British sailors arrived in the 1600s but was rediscovered in 1951 and is now the country’s national bird. “There’s even a particular name for this,” he says. “Lazarus species.”
It occurred to Abley that someone somewhere might have stored some of the Montreal melon seeds, and if so, then perhaps the melon could make a comeback. Saving the Montreal melon from extinction might have been a long shot, but Abley figured that if anyone could do it, it was Ken Taylor.
At the time, Taylor sold organic heirloom vegetables at his farm on Saturdays. Abley had shopped there on occasion and had been struck by the variety of items on display. He remembers being particularly impressed by the Cream of Saskatchewan melon, because he’d grown up in Saskatchewan and had never heard of it. It was obvious, says Abley, that Taylor had “an unusual interest in plants.”
Taylor is a rare breed: a farmer with a Ph.D. in chemistry. At 70, he’s well over 6 feet tall, with a prominent chin and white stubble. His land looks nothing like a typical farm — no wide-open fields or neat rows of crops. It’s chaotic, shady in parts and overgrown with tall weeds and wildflowers. The crops blend into their surroundings. They’re easy to miss.
Taylor bought the first acre of what he now calls Green Barn Farm in 1973. At the time, he’d just become a professor at John Abbott College in the West Island of Montreal — a job he’d go on to hold for 35 years, teaching chemistry, winemaking, and beekeeping until his retirement in 2005. He’d grown up on a farm in southeastern Quebec, and he missed growing his own food.
The land was all swamp and scrub weed, with a few open wells on it. A dilapidated barn more than a century old sat on the property and was used by the town’s mayor as a place to store his boats. Taylor planted hundreds of fruit and nut trees, and over the years he expanded his acreage, started one of Montreal’s first CSAs, and renovated the barn house, where he and his wife, Lorraine, held the Saturday market for more than two decades.
Taylor raised his four children at the farm and did what he could to keep them away from fast foods or foods with corn byproducts or foods imported from countries with different regulatory standards. To satisfy their desire for sweets, he baked them hemp cookies. “They were green,” recalls his son Nick.
Taylor has described himself as someone who never “fit the mold anywhere,” and he has unconventional ideas about food production. He’s eager to share them, and sometimes does so in ways that are pithy and provocative. (“Cantaloupes have killed more people than the Afghan war!”; “Monsanto probably controls your food supply!”; “Canada is a hotbed of planet disrespect!”)
But mostly he talks very seriously — and in painstaking detail — about agricultural problems and their solutions. Nick says a typical conversation with his dad while growing up meant patiently sitting through “fun fact 9,226 about why pears grow better here.” And while he found it hard to bear for the first 18 years of his life, his father’s passion for food production and sustainability eventually rubbed off on him. He now has his master’s degree in plant science, works closely with Taylor, and plans to someday take over for him at the farm.
Though Taylor took on farming simply because he wanted to grow his own food, it has evolved into a mission. He sells seeds, seedlings, and rootstock on the Green Barn Farm website, urging growers to “protect our Canadian genetic heritage.” He also partners with a Montreal CSA, Lufa Farms, to provide items for its food baskets; offers “eco-education” through workshops and seminars; and gives “Taste-n-Talk” tours of the farm.
On the farm these days you can see wandering chickens, edible flowers, a grape vineyard, a pawpaw orchard, sunflowers, and tree after tree, some 60 feet tall. Depending on the season, they bear black walnuts, chestnuts, mulberries, apricots, plums, peaches, and highbush cranberries, along with more exotic offerings like quince. A shady dirt path leads to a three-acre plot where overgrown weeds obscure rows of low-lying vine crops like squashes and melons. Items you wouldn’t expect to find in a northern climate thrive on Taylor’s land: bananas, Asian pears, pecans, sumac. “There’s really nothing we can’t grow here,” he says.
Working with perennial plants, which require minimal upkeep and don’t need to be replanted every year, he has bred and selected varieties of fruits, nuts, and berries that resist the brutal Canadian winters. And he thinks other Canadian farmers ought to be doing the same.
“Planting seeds and pounding the soil and annually preparing it and fertilizing it and watering it and fighting whatever short-term disease you may have so that you can finish everything up in three months is not a very earth-friendly or sustainable food production system,” says Taylor. “But that’s basically all we do in Canada.”
Part of the problem, according to Taylor, is that the country’s agricultural system is designed for exports, not for local markets. In 2012, Canada became the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter — and spent $32.3 billion bringing in agricultural and agri-food items from 190 other countries.
“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”
The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease. The Irish Potato Famine is a case in point. The Cavendish banana, which makes up 99% of the banana export market, is being wiped out by a fungal disease for which there’s no cure, and the industry has no other banana variety on deck.
As a food grower, Taylor sees it as his responsibility to restore to his little section of earth the genetic diversity that’s been lost from it. “This island used to be full of all kinds of variety of nuts and berries and wild stuff,” he says. “Well, that’s all gone. We’ve now got cornfields and soy fields and people, so there’s no natural mixing and changing of the genetics.” That’s important, he says, because “if you take a population and let them inbreed, eventually none of them are very strong.”
There’s also a critical need for diversity in how food is grown, he says. While CSAs like Lufa Farms — which grows food hydroponically in rooftop greenhouses year-round — are a step in the right direction, most innovation in farming is happening elsewhere in the world, Taylor says. He points to encouraging models such as the old London Underground bomb shelters that have been converted into subterranean food farms and rely on the Earth’s natural heat, and the food hubs in Vermont that aid sustainable local-food systems.
In Canada, only 1.8% of the farms are certified organic — and that certification doesn’t even mean much to Taylor. “Organic means you can spray with sulfur and do all these other things I don’t like,” he says, “and if you don’t have enough organic feed for your chickens, you’re allowed to buy non-organic. And if your product is 90% organic, the last 10% can be anything — you can put cyanide in it!”
Late-season crops at Green Barn Farm.
Taylor says he always knew better than to douse his own crops with chemicals, but he did experiment early on with an organic spray. He got a splitting headache. His eyes burned. He coughed and hacked. So he went back to farming in the tradition he’d grown up with on his family’s farm. “I put my trust in the natural processes,” he says.
But those natural processes aren’t working so well this season for his Montreal melon crop. Poor weather and fungal disease aren’t the only problems. Looking down at the vines, where plump melons should be growing but aren’t, Taylor zeroes in on some movement around a leaf. “See that? Just one bumblebee. And that’s sad. Should be all kinds. See all the flowers here too? There should be insects jumping along those.”
Without sufficient help from bees, his cantaloupe plants aren’t likely to produce fruit. So Taylor sees the lone pollinating insect as a bad sign. He also sees it as a testament to the folly of conventional farming and the danger it poses to food security. “I think the cornfields are finally impacting our [bee] population here on the island,” he says.
Corn is Canada’s third-largest crop, and most of it is sprayed with pesticides. The corn on the neighboring farm is no exception, and the farmer there has added more sprays than usual this year, according to Taylor, who laments that agribusiness as usual turns pollinating insects into collateral damage in the effort to kill pests. As Taylor puts it, it’s as if “someone robs a bank in downtown Montreal, and you kill the 4 million people in [metropolitan] Montreal just to get that one bad person.”
His point — that overkill comes with consequences — is becoming ever more apparent. A growing body of research, including a 2014 Harvard School of Public Health study, has linked the rapid decline in the worldwide bee population, which pollinates a third of the world’s crops, to neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide commonly used on cornfields and other industrial crops. The European Union has outright banned them, and the provincial government of Ontario, which produces 68% of Canada’s corn, recently placed restrictions on their use. The EPA is currently reassessing the risk they pose to pollinators.
Taylor believes the problems associated with pesticides extend beyond the fate of bees and the food supply. “They’re killing the human population, too,” he says, “but that’s a slower process and harder to track.” Farmers and the public are being misled, according to Taylor. “They’re told by the government it’s OK to spray, but as a biochemist, I know it’s not safe.”
He turns his attention back to his vine crops. If the weather cooperates and three weeks pass without any moisture to increase the disease vectors, the Montreal melons could still do OK. But Taylor isn’t hopeful. He has seen the forecast; meteorologists are predicting more rain in the next seven days. He can’t help but feel that this Montreal melon endeavor has been a colossal waste of time.
“Those cantaloupes?” he says, dismissing them with a flip of a hand. “Phhht.”
Taylor calls what he does “freedom farming.” His philosophy is simple: Tread lightly. Let the land do what it wants and outsmart any pests, animals, or diseases that might threaten the yield. He doesn’t try to make his land conform to his desires; he wants to see what the land desires, what will thrive on it. That means interfering with it as little as possible: no effortful weeding, no spraying. No watering, even. If a crop doesn’t grow, well, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Weeds are not the enemy. They bring rich nutrients to the ground, and they’re useful near vine crops to prevent crows from having a place to land near his fruit.
Freedom farming, he says, is “the ultimate opposite of control.” He’ll do small things — like use plastic mulch to increase the heat when his vine crops are young, personally squash worms that are eating his leaves, or begin his crops indoors if the weather is too cold. But mainly he sees his role as introducing new genetics.
He doesn't mean "introducing new genetics" in the Monsanto sense of altering an organism’s DNA and creating a new species of tomato or carrot. He means bringing in or crossing existing species with the larger goal of increasing biodiversity and food security. “I aid and abet some of the natural selection that would go on by bringing in new genetics all the time from all over the world. And if nature doesn’t want it there, it doesn’t grow.”
So when Mark Abley approached Taylor in 1995 with the idea of bringing back the Montreal melon, it wasn’t a hard sell. Taylor figured the melon could have DNA that would be resistant to modern vectors of disease and climate change.
Taylor spent some time in the library, researching the melon’s characteristics in an effort to figure out what it should look and taste like. Its large size and green flesh distinguished it from a run-of-the-mill cantaloupe, as did its taste, which was said to be sweet, though also a bit spicy, with hints of nutmeg.
Over the course of the next year, Abley chased down many leads, trying to find Montreal melon seeds for Taylor to plant. He contacted Heritage Seeds Canada, which preserves rare and heirloom varieties of Canadian plants, and a group in Great Britain that keeps a library of heritage seeds.
Taylor acquired some seeds on his own by reaching out to seed collectors through his contacts at a group called North American Fruit Explorers. But none of the seeds he planted that year ended up yielding the Montreal melon. Either they didn’t germinate or different kinds of melons appeared, with smooth rinds or salmon flesh.
Abley didn’t give up. He acquired some "Green Nutmeg” rockmelon seeds from a small company in Tasmania and passed them on to Taylor. They didn't grow. Abley, though, also learned that the USDA stored some possible Montreal melon seeds in its repository in Ames, Iowa. Taylor planted a dozen of those seeds in summer 1997. Only one bore the Montreal melon’s characteristic thin grayish netting, and though it didn’t grow to 20 pounds, it was about three times larger than the average supermarket melon.
When Taylor sliced it open, he and Abley were thrilled: They saw green. They tasted the melon. “Sweet. Firm. Juicy. Mildly aromatic…Welcome back, Montreal melon,” Abley wrote in the Montreal Gazette that fall.
For Taylor, the story of the Montreal melon was really just beginning. He collected the green melon’s seeds, about 200 of them, and then planted them the following year. They grew beautifully, and for the next generation he selected seeds from the “bigger-fruiting” offspring. By 1998, he had stabilized the seed and grown a bounty.
Taylor spread the seeds around. He made them available to community gardeners and donated 2,000 of them to a local historical association. The association made Montreal melon T-shirts and sold $5 packets of the seeds during a fundraiser. An environmental community organization planted the seeds in a community cantaloupe garden in NDG, the neighborhood where the melon had once flourished; held a melon-tasting event; and donated some of its yield to a local food depot.
Taylor sold the Montreal melon at his Saturday market. “I would charge the same thing I did for the other melons: two or three dollars, instead of two or three hundred,” he says. “So I was charging one one-hundredth what the market value was in its previous history.”
But Taylor couldn’t get rid of the melons fast enough. They didn’t store well, and he ended up throwing a few hundred away. “But I liked the flavor, so I crossed it,” he says. By planting seeds near rows of about 30 different varieties of melon and letting the bees do their work, Taylor wound up with what he calls a “mini Montreal melon” — one that only weighs a couple of pounds but has the same color flesh and a similar taste.
In the years that followed, Taylor, who had tens of thousands of the revived Montreal melon's seeds, kept giving them away to make sure the melon didn’t disappear again. “All of a sudden the slow food movement heard about it,” he says. “And Seed Savers people wanted it, and then a couple of seed companies wanted it, so I sold them a few seeds for next to nothing to spread it around in early 2000.”
That same year, the historical association that had sold the seeds at its fundraiser held a Montreal Millennium Melon Festival. People were encouraged to bring melons they’d planted with the fundraising seeds. An estimated 300 to 400 people turned out to see and taste and celebrate the melons. There were even contests — with Taylor acting as one of the judges — for the best melon poem, the best melon-growing story, and the biggest melon, among other categories. The Montreal Gazette referred to the event as “melon mania.”
In 2003, a descendant of one of the original Montreal melon farmers built a (now defunct) website about the melon as a memorial to her father, Fred Aubin, who’d lived on a melon farm as a child and who’d vouched for the taste of the revived melon before his death. In 2004, Canada’s National Post declared that the Montreal melon had been “rescued from culinary oblivion.” “And then by 2005, nobody was interested in it anymore,” says Taylor.
Taylor says that, despite the increased media attention, by 2005 he was the only one growing the melon, and he had trouble selling it. Would-be customers, who were used to supermarket cantaloupe, balked at its green flesh. “People thought something was wrong with it,” he says.
And community gardeners hadn’t had much success with it. “Properly grown and ripened, it’s delicious,” says Taylor, “but it’s not an easy melon. It’s too big and disease-prone. You get beginning gardeners trying to grow a Montreal melon and it turns out not to taste good or it cracks or it doesn’t mature.” None of the melons at the Montreal Millennium Melon Festival, for example, had reached full maturity — the largest had been only six pounds.
Slow Food Montreal members tried to grow the melon for three years, to no avail. To make matters worse, even seasoned growers had trouble — four out of five summers were too cold and wet to produce a good yield, says Taylor. So he put away the seeds in 2009 and concentrated on other, better-growing crops. And, despite all the “melon mania” that had taken place, no one seemed to notice. The melon, as it had mid-century, made a quiet exit.
From time to time, the melon resurfaces — in the odd nostalgic reference (someone recently started selling a beautifully designed Montreal melon dish towel) or the determined efforts of backyard gardeners. Francey Kaiser, an elementary school teacher, tried unsuccessfully to grow the melons in her school garden in 2014. “They stayed small and the squirrels ate them,” she says. Her mother, a farmer, had more success growing them on her land, and Kaiser brought the biggest one of her mother’s yield to school and shared it with 50 students.
Taylor hadn’t touched the Montreal melon seeds in six years when Lufa Farms approached him at the beginning of last year, asking him to grow the melon for its food basket subscribers. Lauren Rathmell, one of Lufa’s founders, says she was taken with the “story behind it.” (His son, Nick, started as Lufa’s plant science project manager in March.)
Taylor took out 500 seeds and got to work.
The season got off to a terrible start. It was cold through June, and by the time the weather warmed up, some of the seeds he’d given to Lufa to start indoors had grown melons that were too large for him to successfully transplant. And then the rain came. And the fungal disease came. And the bees didn’t.
One afternoon in early September, Taylor stood in his field admiring his watermelons and various forms and sizes of delicata squash. It had been a good summer for many of his crops. Earlier that day, he’d packed up Asian pears, apples, seedless grapes, clover flowers, Kaffir lime leaves, European pears, and plums for Lufa. But no Montreal melons.
“The vines are pretty well dead,” he said. He twisted off a small cantaloupe, the size of a softball, and pushed into it with his thumbs. Its skin gave way, and he tore it open. It was pale and beginning to rot. “You see here, it’s the green flesh, but that’s pathetic. That’s about the worst I’ve ever seen. Not the right shape, not the right size. The fungus even attacked the melon itself. Terrible, terrible.”
He knew what he could have done for a better outcome. “I would have had to put a row cover on,” he said. “I would have had to give it some sort of seaweed coating or some intervention of some kind. I have some kale and clay there. I could have sprayed that on, maybe beat back the fungus a bit.” But he didn’t want to do it. He’s a freedom farmer.
“You know, why bang your head against nature? The reason the Montreal melon died out is not just because it’s big and it’s hard to grow. The climate has changed. And I’m sure the climate was changing back 60-70 years ago as well and caused a lot of people to say, ‘The hell, I can grow an easier melon!’ That cantaloupe melon that everybody buys that’s salmon-color flesh? You throw a seed in, and it’ll grow.”
Taylor didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious what he was thinking: Perhaps the Montreal melon no longer belongs in Montreal.
“Next year I’ll focus on the things that were successful,” he said, “so Lufa can feed their basket people with food rather than with thoughts and memories.”
It seems too much about the world and the way we practice agriculture has changed for the Montreal melon to actually thrive again on its home soil. The conditions that made Montreal prime land for cultivating the melon no longer exist. It might as well be just another food we import.
But the melon, at least, isn’t endangered. Seven seed companies in Canada now sell its seeds. And its story continues to excite urban gardeners — a local lawyer posted on Facebook in September that he was successfully growing 11, and the following month a woman from a seed exchange organization shared one on air with the hosts of a CBC radio show.
“I think as a backyard garden novelty — that’s where its place is,” says Taylor. To him it’s like a work of art, in the sense that “a work of art is really not that valuable. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.”
Taylor, though, did what he set out to do. He saved the Montreal melon for a greater purpose — for its genes. “You never know, maybe in 10 years there may be different vectors of disease that won’t bother it, and it’ll bother most other genetics in the cantaloupe family,” he says.
If, in the future, Taylor is craving the taste of the Montreal melon, he’ll just grow the mini one. He’s done with the original, he says. “I’m not going to bother with the Montreal melon in the future,” he says. “You know, I’m just not interested. I did my job.”