The Persian melon, a honey-sweet, orange-fleshed variety dating back to its namesake empire and the progenitor of all American cantaloupes, was a standard in American gardens for two centuries, but it is now virtually unseen and in need of rescue. Montana lavender clay corn, with its striking, deep purple kernels, was blended by a Montanan corn breeder who used a Mandan tribe variety that once passed through the hands of Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson. The buena mulata pepper, a chameleon variety that fruits violet and pink, then ripens through orange and brown to a final red, was extremely rare but rescued from obscurity in the 1940s by Horace Pippen, a black veteran and folk artist who traded his seed collection for therapeutic bee stings.
All of them heirlooms; all of them now safely kept and made available to gardeners around the country to grow for a few dollars. This is the world of Jere Gettle.
Heirlooms: The word itself has an emotive effect, something meaningful, something passed down, something belonging to the family. And indeed, many of these are generational family treasures, fruits and vegetables that have been around and passed down for years. For Gettle, they appeal to his “passion of always finding something new and unique, and telling the story about a family, a region, or country where [it] came from,” he said. In 1998, when he was 17 years old, he founded Baker Creek Seed Company as a tiny, one-man purveyor dedicated to finding and sustaining these myriad varieties. Today, with his wife, Emilee, and a staff of more than 100, Gettle manages the largest catalog of heirloom seeds in North America.
The seed company, named for a creek not 1,000 feet off the back door of its public store, occupies 17 acres 5 miles north of Mansfield, Missouri, a town of about 1,200. Yet this year, Baker Creek is mailing out 1.5 million full-color seed catalogs filled with more than 1,000 heirloom plants.
Gettle grew up in the Boise Valley, but on the Oregon side of the border—an area of great soil, he pointed out. “Everyone pretty much farmed or gardened at least on some scale,” he said. His paternal grandmother, born in Mexico, lived on the same property, growing the crops she remembered from her childhood; his other grandmother lived 15 miles down the road and raised many varieties of squash. His parents grew and preserved much of their own food. They’d visit cousins “and everyone was basically talking about what they were growing, what was ripe.”
His earliest memories are of the garden, of spending time there with his grandmother, and of sitting nearby as she cooked tamales and other homegrown foods over an old wood stove, while he, curiously, paged through seed catalogs—the way other kids might flip through comics or story books. “It’s kind of how I almost learned to read,” he said.
“I got interested really early in all the different colorful vegetables, flowers,” he said. “Everybody was always planting something, so it got me started.” Even as a child, Gettle grew unusual items, such as scallop squash and banana melon, a yellow-rind melon with salmon-colored flesh and a hint of its namesake’s flavor. By the age of 9, he was sending off for his own catalogs, and his dream to work with a seed company took root.
The family moved to Montana when he was 5, and then to Missouri when he was 13, settling on a 176-acre property—becoming only the third family to have occupied it since it had been parceled out in land grants in the 1830s and ’40s. As a teenager, Gettle started saving and trading seeds. When he was 17, he made a 12-page price list of all his seeds and distributed it to family and friends, and he placed a classified ad in the rural newspaper. He ended up making photocopies for 550 people who responded requesting the list. That was 1998, and thus Baker Creek Seed Company was born.
Gettle became a lifetime member of Seed Savers Exchange, and the internet opened up a lot of connections, pushed him forward, and piqued his interest in the diversity that was out there. One of the first varieties he received, and his company introduced in the United States, was the Ali Baba watermelon. “It was sent to me by a gentleman in Iraq in 1998 or ’99,” Gettle recalled. “He said that due to the war going on in Iraq, he was afraid it was going to disappear, and he wanted to keep it going. And when we tried it, it was the best-tasting watermelon we’d ever grown. It had a hard rind, kept well, had great flavor, and it was one of those varieties that had been around in Iraq for a long time.”
He obtained a greater understanding of what was out there in the wider world, and what was disappearing in American catalogs. His passion for the seeds became a love of travel and discovery, and he ventured to the corners of the Earth to track down interesting varieties. Even now, when he has the opportunity, he travels to places like Southeast Asia, Japan, and Guatemala to learn about what people eat and grow.
Seeds even brought Gettle and Emilee, his wife, together. Emilee’s father had farmed and her family home gardened, so, naturally, she ended up with a Baker Creek catalog, and the two met at the seed store. They had two kids, adopted two more, and another is on the way. Acorns don’t fall far from the tree: Several of the kids, ages 7 to 17, have traveled with their parents on “seed discovery missions” abroad to collect seeds, eat interesting fruits and vegetables, and meet people with a shared commitment to preserving seeds and growing their own.
Baker Creek’s seeds are not necessarily all heirloom, which Gettle calls an engineered term meaning traditional or old varieties. An “old” variety is a matter of perspective, relative to a person’s age, he noted. But they are all open-pollinated—plants naturally pollinated by bees, birds, the plant itself, or by hand, rather than selectively cross-pollinated with other varieties, as hybridized seeds are. “It’s either an heirloom or well on its way to becoming an heirloom,” Gettle said.
The key here is consistent preservation: Unlike hybrids, which don’t always produce enough seeds, nor seeds of the same variety, heirlooms breed true from the seed that you saved. This is imperative for those relying on their gardens as an independent and secure food source. That consistency also maintains a direct line to cultural heritage while preserving biodiversity, a crucial aspect that protects us from disturbances in the ecosystem.
The term also does not always mean rare, Gettle said—“You can get some of them at Ace Hardware and anywhere else”—but the majority of what Baker Creek offers is not readily available. “Those are the varieties I really specialize in.” As an example, he points out the Kuroda carrot, a short, sweet, stocky Japanese heirloom that grows well in strong summer heat. “We have black carrots, red carrots, yellow carrots. We have one of the larger collections of everything put together in one place.”
It makes it hard to choose a favorite. Ask Gettle what he likes best and it’s as if you asked him to rank his children. He doesn’t commit but eventually simply starts naming whatever lovely thing comes to mind, and each comes with a story. The Okinawa white bitter melon, for instance, is unique to their catalog. “We were looking for an old version, but all we found were hybrids. But then we found a few pounds of it in Okinawa, and I picked up my first seed packet in Japan about five years ago. They are bright white, amazing-looking on the vine, and [have] a milder flavor. They can be used for soups and curries—and also make a great pickle!”
In Gettle’s second year in business, the Y2K problem grabbed all the headlines. “There was a big interest in homesteading and gardening,” Gettle recalled. “We went from 550 catalogs to around 7 or 8 thousand.” The 2008 financial crisis showed similar growth. Any time people face financial uncertainty, Gettle sees the rush to grow their own food.
And again, uncertainties over the last couple of years drove people to the garden. “Some were gardening for food, some were gardening for food and relaxation, and some just wanted to do something that got their minds off of everything that was going on,” Gettle said. “I think that’s one of the big reasons people do it—besides, everyone just loves fresh tomatoes.”
Now, in addition to their print catalogs, the Baker Creek website (RareSeeds.com), which boasts the “largest selections of 19th-century heirloom seeds from Europe and Asia,” attracts 1.2 million users per month. They fill about a million orders per year, with an average order size of 13 packets, and customers now order more often throughout the year, not just in spring. The largest demographic groups are the 24- to 34-year-olds and the pre-retirement group, 55 to 65, but those differences are not large, and even the 18- to 24-year-olds are getting into it.
Baker Creek is for gardeners who want a lot of choices, Gettle said. “If you’re just looking for a radish, you’re probably just as good going into a hardware store. But if you’re looking for the best paste tomato or the best orange paste tomato? We have some options—better flavor; or sweeter, lower acid; larger size; or a different color.” The company grows a variety of crops on its Missouri farm, and it also works with about 200 growers, gardeners, and small seed producers.
“People have gotten away from eating the same old varieties,” he added. Think the ubiquitous Red Delicious apples and Cavendish bananas, easy to ship and blemish-free in the produce aisles. These commercial varieties, Gettle explained, are mostly bred for shipping, while heirlooms were originally bred for local consumption—so whether or not it bruised easily or ripened in transit didn’t matter when it only needed to travel across the yard to the dinner table. His customers “miss the flavors from when they were children, or they learn about the different flavors from the farmers market or a restaurant or their neighbors, and it gets them excited once they start growing the different varieties. It’s hard to quit trying different things.”
For Gettle, the joy of working with these heirlooms always comes back to the bigger picture. It’s about learning the stories behind these unique varieties and “being able to pass [them] on, and connecting people with their food cultures and gardening cultures, and connecting it all back together in a way so that they can relive their past—with their grandmother, their ethnic culture or country,” he said. At the same time, it “introduces people to other traditions and foodways and ideas about food—as well as, you know, flowers and gardening.
“It all feels good, it feels like something we should be doing: connecting to my family, and other families, and at the same time building a more sustainable local community where people grow some of their own food.”
From January Issue, Volume 3