Seed Savers

In his early 20s, Jeremiath “Jere” Gettle was known to tirelessly set off alone in his trusty Saturn into the depths of Mexico and beyond, armed with only an old road atlas, a paper map and a burning desire to…discover and save historic seeds? It’s true; it’s a passion that’s earned him a reputation as one of the greatest innovators in the world of rare heirloom seeds and authentic natural foods, and one that led The New York Times Magazine to refer to him as the “Indiana Jones of heirloom seeds.” 

Jere was born in 1980 to an eastern-Oregonian homesteading family influenced by the back-to-the-land movement. By age 3, he was faithfully shadowing his parents in the garden—helping to plant seeds for delights such as Yellow Pear tomatoes and Bennings Green-Tint Scallop squash. “The squash plants grew as tall as I was,” says Jere. “Everything was at eye-level. I enjoyed watching everything happen…the insects, the flowers. The varieties were traditional ones grown by my parents, distinct and different. By the time I was four or five years old, I knew someday I wanted to work for a seed company.”

When Jere was 12, the family—in search of a longer growing season—found and bought a Civil War-era farm in Missouri that had once belonged to the Rippee family (a homestead that is thought to be the longest-lasting in Missouri). He’d continued to be fascinated by seeds, and while perusing seed catalogs one day, he noticed that many of the vegetables he loved growing up—such as Banana melon, White Wonder cucumber and Sakurajima giant radish—were disappearing in favor of new hybrids. Jere decided to begin saving his own seeds, and at 17, he started a small seed business out of his bedroom with $100 of his own money. He named it “The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company” in honor of the creek that winds through the family farm. He wasn’t old enough to drive, though, so Jere got a ride from a friend to Mansfield to establish the business bank account. He carried the money for the deposit into the bank in a bucket. 

Jere attended to almost every aspect of the business as it grew, with only minimal input or help from his parents. He compiled a mailing list of fellow seed lovers and placed an ad in the local electric co-op magazine—growing the list to 550 names. Soon, he’d created his first 12-page, photocopied, hand-stapled seed catalog and he mailed it out to the list. 

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The seed business quickly outgrew Jere’s bedroom—and even the family’s entire two-story home—so in 2000, the family built a seed store on the site of the original Rippee family’s tomato garden. “We started the festivals at that time,” says Jere, “as a way to get gardeners together at the seed farm with vendors and music. Four hundred folks showed up the first year.” 

In March of 2006, Jere met writer Emilee Frele, who had contacted him a few months earlier about an article she was writing, and they were married in August of that same year. Together, they expanded the seed business as well as their own individual passions. They took over the family’s original two-story house while Jere’s parents built a new house across the Baker Creek Valley to establish a cattle business. Also homeschooled and a gardener, Emilee began using her expertise to contribute to Heirloom Gardener—a magazine that Jere had begun to publish—as well as design retro-looking seed packets. She also collaborated on the publication of “The Whole Seed Catalog”—a lavishly illustrated, professional guide with vibrant photographs and more than 1,800 varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers from 75 countries. (The catalog was also a nod to the iconic “Whole Earth Catalog” that embraced real food and the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s.) Emilee also began working on what would eventually become “The Heirloom Life Gardener” and “The Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook.”  “The recipes come from family,” says Emilee. Jere had been a vegan since his early teens, but Emilee quickly followed suit after they married. “As the daughter of a hog farmer," she says, "becoming vegan was a big change. But I got tired of cooking two meals!”    

By 2007, a late-19th-century mock pioneer village was built on the property with the assistance of Amish and Mennonite carpenters. Named “Bakersville,” the village now hosts many varieties of endangered and exotic poultry and livestock and includes charming visitor/family-friendly features such as a mercantile, restaurant, garden museum, jail, blacksmith shop and natural bakery, where Jere’s mother and grandmother can often be seen.

The Gettles expanded beyond the family land, as well. They established the Seed Bank—a unique seed and garden store in the 1920s Sonoma County Bank building in Petaluma, California—and they continue to restore and preserve the historic Comstock, Ferre & Co., the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England.

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Of course, the Gettles are quick to point out that developing the visitor destinations and collecting and selling seeds are just parts of their overall mission. Fighting the multinational, agricultural corporations that control the food supply and speaking out against hybrids, the patenting of seeds, toxic chemicals and factory farming are also important facets woven into their business model. For Jere, an outspoken champion of the non-GMO movement, local food awareness is the best weapon against so-called “Frankenfood,” and he continues to believe in the value of bringing people together to share information. To that end, farmers, gardeners, seed geeks, locavores, natural foods advocates—even seed experts from other companies—meet each year to celebrate and honor seeds at Jere’s National Heirloom Exposition. Billed as the “World’s Pure Food Fair,” the first expo was held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa in 2011 and featured 100 diverse speakers, such as local-food pioneer Alice Waters and Vandana Shiva, an international activist on agricultural and socioeconomic issues. Attendance has grown every year to a current total of almost 20,000 attendees.

Jere continues to travel the world Indiana-Jones style seeking seeds, but he admits he’s outgrown the old Saturn and paper maps. His team now includes Emilee and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, and modern technology helps with each journey. “I love to travel,” he says, “especially to other countries, and meet with people in small tribal villages—having them hand me a seed that their mother or great-grandmother might have grown. The diversity keeps history alive but it also keeps the local culture alive.”

Definitely seeds for thought.

By Marilyn McCray • Photography Courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

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