Given his signature bib overalls, his youthful farm-boy looks and an aw-shucks demeanor reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart, Jere Gettle could be just another backyard sodbuster looking to plant his spring garden. We’re standing in the cavernous lobby of the Seed Bank in Petaluma amidst racks and rows containing thousands of seed packets carrying exotic names like Metki White Serpent Melon and Turkish Striped Monastery Tomato.
Gettle seems like a kid in a candy store, his eyes flashing from one packet to another as he mutters tidbits of information about each variety. He locks on a packet of lettuce seeds.
“Here’s one that Thomas Jefferson grew,” Gettle gushed.
To the 31-year-old self-proclaimed “gardening geek,” the Seed Bank is more than just a well-stocked starting point for bountiful harvests to come. The store is a repository of horticultural history and, in many cases, America’s agricultural heritage. It is also part of a thriving, coast-to-coast heirloom seed business founded by Gettle when he was 17.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is headquartered at the Gettle ranch in Mansfield, Mo., with retail stores in Petaluma and Wethersfield, Conn. The company stocks more than 1,300 varieties of heirloom vegetable, flower and herb seeds. The Baker Creek heirloom selection is recognized as the largest in the U.S.
“I basically started out of my bedroom when I was 17,” Gettle said. “It was a hobby. I’d been trading seeds or a number of years. When I was small I’d always look through Henry Field’s and Gurney’s and all of the seed catalogues and imagined what it must be like to work with a seed company and all of the different types of seed.”
Gettle planted his first garden at the age of 3 and, he admits, has been hooked ever since. During his youth, he eschewed video games and other typical kid’s stuff, opting instead for more natural pursuits.
“I liked seeds and anything natural,” he said. “I liked to fish or collect rocks or look at birds. It was always outdoors stuff and gardening in particular interested me because of the genetic diversity and the history behind the seeds, especially the old seeds. You know, this is a Japanese heirloom or this is one that Thomas Jefferson grew, this one dates back to the time of the Romans and so forth … it was just all fascinating.”
That fascination with seeds led him to publish the company’s first, small seed catalogue in 1998. Today, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalogue includes more than 200 pages and each year is mailed to more than 300,000 gardeners throughout the U.S. It is also available for downloading from the company’s website rareseeds.com.
The catalogue reads like a who’s who of heirloom seeds. Detailed descriptions, histories and photos provide plenty of promise for winter-bound gardeners yearning for spring. Many of the heirloom varieties have been passed down by families who have grown the particular vegetable or flower for generations. Stories about these human hosts often appear alongside horticultural descriptions of the seed varieties. According Gettle, many families consider Baker Creek a living museum that will keep their personal horticultural legacy alive.
“A lot of times, people will send us something and say ‘I’m the only one left in my family growing this and I’m 92. Will you try and keep this alive?’ We also travel some and there are always other people picking up stuff for us.”
According to Gettle, the term “heirloom” generally refers to seed varieties that have not been hybridized or genetically modified and, in the end, deliver vegetables with better taste and nutrition than non-heirloom varieties. Moreover, heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, usually more than 50 years old and typically have been passed down through generations of growing and seed saving. A seed saved from an heirloom varietal and replanted will yield the identical plant and produce from year to year.
Gettle said that commercially mass-produced seeds are usually hybrids or genetically modified, processes intended to combine or manipulate characteristics from various pure varieties. Seeds produced from these plants, if saved and replanted, will produce a different plant that resembles one or the other parent. This not only ensures repeat business for hybrid or GMO seeds each year but, Gettle said, also results in produce with compromised flavor and nutrition.
A growing public concern about industrialized food production and its relationship to health has fueled the market for purer, locally grown pantry alternatives, Gettle said.
“It’s come to the point where a lot of people are starting to think about what real food used to be,” Gettle said. “Fifty or a hundred years ago food used to come from a local farm or a farm that was at least located in your state. Now so much of it is shipped in and packaged … almost all the commercially raised produce you buy now is flavorless. And when the flavor goes, in general the nutrition is going with it.”
Gettle said that flourishing farmers markets and the resurgence of smaller, localized farming is a direct result of this consumer trend toward healthier, tastier food. He added that this has also gotten many people back to the soil and into the seed catalogue.
“Over the past 10 years our orders have increased year-to-year anywhere from 20 to 100 percent,” he said. “The overall trend has gone much more to vegetables. We have about 500 seed racks out in nurseries and 90 percent of the nurseries are not interested in flowers now. Fifteen or 20 years ago, flowers were the biggest thing on seed racks.”
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Riding the wave of this gardening trend, a few years ago Gettle, his wife Emilee, and young daughter Sasha traveled west from their Missouri home to establish a West Coast retail outlet. Scoping out California coastal towns from San Diego north, the Gettles discovered the vacant but majestic 1920s-era bank building in the heart of downtown Petaluma. Originally the home of Sonoma County National Bank and later Bank of America, the historic structure dominates the intersection of Petaluma Boulevard and Washington Street. The company opened the Seed Bank at the location in 2009. Shortly after, Baker Creek bought the historic Comstock, Ferre seed company in Connecticut, housed in a group of 19th-century buildings.
“We love historic buildings and we don’t really like to put the seeds into contemporary structures if we can help it. It just doesn’t feel right.”
In Petaluma, the spacious lobby of the former bank is now full of colorful seed packets, an unimaginable collection of obscure varieties and variations.
“A lot of people can’t believe there is even a seed store anymore, especially in a big building like this,” Gettle said. “People who aren’t gardeners come in here and they’re in shock.”
As if growing a seed company wasn’t enough for his heirloom-filled plate, Gettle and his wife wife “The Heirloom Life Gardener,” a hardcover book that serves as a “comprehensive guide to cultivating heirloom vegetables.” More than just a gardening guide, the book is a treatise for the grow-your-own-food movement as well as an enlightening indictment against GMO crops and industrialized food production. Regarding the latter, Gettle has strong opinions.
“Everything about the modern food system, as far as I’m concerned, has issues or questions,” Gettle bristled. “Everything from genetic engineering to the unprecedented use of chemicals … chemicals not only for insect control but chemicals just to make the fruit last or ripen at the right time. We’re using (chemicals) for everything. Before you plant the seed it’s treated with chemicals Before that the seeds are sometimes engineered to have their own pesticides … then they’re sprayed again and many fruit varieties are sprayed so they ripen at a certain time. Then (the fruit) is coated with petroleum so they look nice in the grocery store.”
Clearly an activist in this area, Gettle said subsidized, large-scale agriculture and industrialized food production is at the root of many problems Americans face today.
“The U.S. is the most unhealthy Western country,” he continued. “Everybody throughout our country is starting to realize that we have to do something. They may not have the same idea but they know something needs to be done.”
Gettle said that as more people become aware of healthier alternatives in food and food production, pressure to change the status quo will continue to build. In part, that was Gettles motivation to organize the first National Heirloom Exposition, held in September 2011 in Santa Rosa. Nearly 11,000 people attended the three-day event along with 200 “pure food” vendors and 70 educational speakers. Much of the focus at the Exposition was in showcasing the diversity of heirloom fruit and vegetable varieties.
“At the Expo there were all of these different people working on different categories, whether it’s walnuts, peaches, apples, watermelons or whatever...people are working to bring these old varieties back,” Gettle said. “A lot of diversity has kind of disappeared and it’s good to see all of the effort to bring it back.”
The Heirloom Exposition will be “even bigger” when it returns this year to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds Sept. 11-13, Gettle said.
Meanwhile, Gettle and his family split their time between their bi-coastal seed stores and the home farm in Missouri. Ever the gardening geek, Gettle admits that his idea of relaxing is a few hours spent weeding or cultivating. The company actively supports the growing trend in school garden projects and each year donates seeds to a wide variety of organizations throughout the world.
“We basically support any type of non-profit organization that has a gardening type side to it or wants to have a gardening project,” he said. “Everything from churches to the Birmingham Foundation to prisons … you name it.”
As with many successful entrepreneurs, Gettle’s continuing passion for his product seems to be the fertile ground supporting the vigorous growth of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
“To be honest, it’s more of a hobby than a business,” he said. “I love being able to meet so many people with different projects, learn about all of the different varieties and collect new varieties. People are always coming in and telling me about their great grandmother and how she rode across the prairie or whatever and this bean she brought with her and how her granddad had it in his family. I’m always hearing stories about these old varieties and where they came from. They mean a lot to a lot of people, and I’m just trying to keep that alive.”
The Petaluma Seed Bank is at 199 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma. For details, call 773-1336; or visit rareseeds.com/petaluma-seed-bank