Joe Gibbs' Proceeds from Collecting Allergens Are Not to Be Sneezed at

updated 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dried mites, for instance, fetch his Ozarks lab $292 per gram

Most people get only welts from fleas; Joe Gibbs gets rich. The originator of Allergon laboratories in Carthage, Mo., Gibbs, 41, makes his living collecting insects, not to mention weeds, grasses, feathers and virtually any other substance that can make noses water and eyes redden. These substances, called allergens, are used by doctors to produce serums that help allergy sufferers hack it through the long, wheezing spring and summer. In his headquarters near the Ozarks, Gibbs is within easy striking distance of hundreds of mankind's greatest misery provokers. "We are the closest to the mostest," he chuckles as he scoops up crane flies in the field outside his lab and greenhouse. "We're near the plains where the sneeze-causing grasses grow, the mountains with all their trees, and right here in Carthage we've got weeds."

Obviously, misery loves his company, and vice versa. He traffics in 900 different sorts of allergens and sells them for prices ranging from $1.50 for a gram of ragweed pollen to $292 for a gram of mites. (That's not field weight, though—they're defatted first in an acetone soak.) Over the years, Gibbs has stood in the 104° heat of a California desert to prune the blossoms of rabbit brush, a rare allergen, and even acquired a sheriff's sanction to collect pollen from a marijuana field. This dedication has produced a heady income. He employs a staff of 10, including his mother and father (a former chemical factory worker). Joe, his wife, Jeanne, and two daughters, 15 and 13, ski at Vail and now live very comfortably on a 250-acre spread with 62 head of cattle and an air-conditioned $30,000 tractor for their alfalfa crop. Last year he sold his firm to a Swedish conglomerate for an undisclosed "tempting" sum, but stayed on to run it as executive vice-president. "We didn't used to be so fancy," Gibbs smiles. "I was just plain owner."

Joe got into the business, as one might suspect, by accident. When he graduated from Oklahoma's Bethany Nazarene College with a biology degree, he was thinking about becoming a doctor but was sick of school. At that point Jeanne saw an ad for a one-man pollen-collecting company in need of a meticulous person who could tell the difference between horse chestnuts and horsetail. "I knew that was the job for me," Gibbs says. Seven years later he went out on his own.

But the allergen game is not without its irritations. Before he got into it, Joe never suffered so much as a sniffle. Now, thanks to cruel irony and working with the stuff all day, he's allergic to most weeds and trees and lots of foods—"everything," he growls. But Gibbs takes his own medicine. Once a week Jeanne gives him a shot of serum made by his doctor from the allergens he's collected. Then every morning, for an extra boost, he sprinkles his breakfast cereal with bee pollen, the particles bees pick up from plants and stick to their legs with saliva. He envisions this by-product of the bees' knees as a sideline cash crop of the future. "It's full of protein," he says, "and energy."

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