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Rural Missouri Magazine
A budding business
Jere Gettle plants a seed and gets a fruitful return

by Jarrett Medlin

Jeremiath "Jere" Gettle began Baker Creek Seed Company when he was only 17. Today, at 24, he owns one of the largest heirloom seed companies in the nation and travels the globe collecting seeds and speaking with other gardeners.

Jeremiath Gettle always had two passions — gardening and collecting. Growing up on a Montana ranch, Jereremiath, known as “Jere” to friends, planted squash and tomatoes and collected all sorts of trinkets, including coins, stamps and seeds.

While flipping through an issue of Sunset magazine one day, young Jere came across an article about a variety of seeds called “heirlooms.” The different colors and rich history of the seeds were fascinating. Next to the article was a seed catalog order form, which he immediately filled out. Before long, Jere had ordered everything in the catalog. He began branching out with his newfound interest and learned more from Seed Savers. While other children his age were swapping baseball cards, Jere was designing seed catalogs and selling heirloom seeds at swap meets.

At only 17, Jere launched his own venture, Baker Creek Seed Company, near Mansfield. He produced a catalog filled with a wide selection of heirloom seeds and colorful pictures. Over the next seven years, the company continued to expand as business increased and Jere’s seed collection grew. Today, the business has become one of the nation’s leaders in heirloom seed sales.

“Basically, it was just a hobby that turned into a business, ” Jere says.

In addition to his mail order and internet sales business, Jere publishes a magazine, The Heirloom Gardener.

Baker Creek Seed Company now sends out 60,000 catalogs each year and sells to some of the world’s top chefs and businesses, including Disney World. He now lists the world’s largest selection of heirloom melons and 115 kinds of tomatoes. The company hosts two annual festivals that attract thousands to its store at the end of a dirt road. In addition to the catalog, Jere produces a seasonal magazine, The Heirloom Gardener. He also spends several months each year traveling to find additional types of seeds.

So, what’s so special about an heirloom seed?

“Basically, an heirloom seed is one that has been passed down through families and is usually considered over 50 years old,” says the Se-Ma-No Electric Cooperative member. “Some varieties even date back to Thomas Jefferson’s garden and beyond.”

Heirlooms are different than more commercially popular hybrid and gene-altered seeds in a number of ways. Unlike other seeds, heirlooms can be saved each year, so they can be passed down from generation to generation. In fact, that’s how many of them survived over time. Also, heirloom varieties are often more colorful than their hybrid counterparts and have more nutritional value. Finally, most heirloom fruits, vegetables and herbs taste better.

For instance, there’s the Cherokee purple tomato — Baker Creek’s best-selling tomato. The fruit is dark red with streaks of purple. As Jere describes it, the taste is “really sweet and really tart at the same time,” nothing like the average tomato. The tomato was originally developed by Cherokee Indians and given to a Tennessee family during the 1880s, which passed it down.

Then there’s the Tigger melon. Although it’s not the best-tasting melon, the appearance is unlike anything else. The 1-pound fruit is vibrant yellow with bright red zigzag stripes. The heirloom came from an Armenian market located in a mountain valley.

It’s the combination of heritage, appearance, taste and nutrition that have attracted scores of other people to heirlooms.

Jere displays one of the unusual vegetables that can be grown from heirloom seeds.

“It seems like people everywhere have suddenly had an interest in heirloom seeds,” says Jere. “Once people taste the varieties, they usually get into it big-time. The next year, they’re wanting to grow more than they can handle because of the flavor and the color, the different shapes and sizes, and the history.”

In the past, heirloom seeds have been more popular in other regions of the world, including Italy, Mexico and Thailand. The West Coast has also been using heirlooms for the past 30 years, Jere says. But he believes the trend is now catching on closer to home.

“Here in the Midwest, we tend to be more like ham and potatoes, and everything has to look just this certain way,” he says. “But it’s changing here. Even in the last five years we went from people in Missouri not even knowing what heirloom meant to people off the street calling up and asking about heirlooms.”

There are now festivals and conferences all over the planet where farmers, gardeners and chefs gather to talk about heirlooms. Jere spends many weeks each year attending these events.

This year, the Ozarks will also be full of thousands of gardeners during Baker Creek’s two annual festivals. On April 24 and 25, Jere will host the 5th Annual Spring Planting Festival & Heirloom Growers Conference. Then on Aug. 14 and 15, Baker Creek will again host heirloom fanatics during the Heirloom Garden Show. Admission is only $2 and Baker Creek offers free tent and RV camping during the festivals.

Last year, 2,600 visitors from 23 states attended the spring event. More than 50 vendors in booths sold plants, books, food, herbal soaps, honey, garden sculptures, herbs, garden tools and other products. Musicians played bluegrass, cowboy and mountain music while artists demonstrated old-time crafts and foods.

An employee of the Baker Creek Seed Store gathers packages of seeds to fill a mail order.

During the festivals, visitors crowd into “The Big Barn” that sits near the seed store, which Jere built specifically for workshops and lectures. In the barn, they can learn from the nation’s top garden speakers including Amy Goldman, the vice president of the Seed Savers Exchange — the group that first taught Jere much of what he knows about seeds. Lectures include topics such as vegetable history, seed saving, market gardening, organic pest control and much more.

Of all the festival activities, Jere’s favorite part is meeting new people. Many of Baker Seed’s visitors are from other countries and come to the store looking for a link to their native lands. While traveling to foreign countries like Cambodia and Thailand, Jere meets a wide array of people in the villages that dot the countries’ mountains and valleys. Somehow, heirloom seeds have a way of providing a connection with collectors’ ancestors and fellow citizens.

“It’s a connection to the past, and it connects you to different people groups,” he says. “The main thing I like to do is raise ethnic-type vegetables because many of them are endangered and it’s fun to get the different cultures growing them again. It’s great when people first get to America and find something from home or something they remember their grandma growing, and they’re amazed it would be here.”

It’s that connection — the moment when people realize the significance of a mere seed — that makes collecting heirlooms more than a hobby.

For directions and information or to request a seed catalog, call (417) 924-8917. Or, visit Baker Creek Seed Company online at www.rareseeds.com.

 

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