Monday, March 9, 2009

Saving seeds like those grandma used to plant

By R.D. Hohenfeldt

Managing Editor, Ozarks Almanac

Like any tourist, Jere Gettle likes to collect souvenirs when he travels.

Unlike any tourist, Gettle doesn’t look for coffee mugs or T-shirts. He doesn’t look for miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty.

He looks for seeds; specifically, he seeks out seeds from varieties of fruits and vegetables that have been grown at least 50 years, preferably hundreds of years, perhaps even a thousand years.

Jeremiath Gettle, the founder and owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, collects heirloom seeds from growers across the nation and around the world. He also takes at least one seed-seeking excursion each year, if he can find the time between planning two annual farm conferences, compiling a colorful annual catalog, overseeing employees who fill orders received by phone and mail, and editing The Heirloom Gardener, a quarterly magazine.

Somewhere in that hectic schedule, Gettle also finds time to get outdoors to grow out some of the seeds he collects on his journeys to assure their quality. Although he has a network of growers across the country who grow seeds for him, Gettle has enjoyed, no, he has loved gardening, since he was 4 years old.

“When I started gardening, I was always interested in unusual vegetables, like the yellow pear tomato,” says Gettle, seated in his office at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, located outside Mansfield in what is almost a you-can’t-get-there-from-here portion of the Ozarks.

The company headquarters is located on the Gettle family’s cattle ranch, where Jere, 24, has spent half his life. The first half was spent on the Gettle family’s cattle ranch in Montana.

In 1990, when he was 10 years old, he read an article in Sunset magazine about heirloom tomatoes. There was an accompanying ad from an heirloom tomato seed company, and he sent in the coupon for a catalog.

Gettle bought many, perhaps most, of the seeds offered in that catalog, and started collecting them as a hobby.

“I collect everything,” he says. “Stamps, coins, seeds, antiques, seeds.”

He discovered Seed Savers Exchange, joined it in 1996, received a catalog and moved from hobbyist to serious seedsman.

“I found an immense variety of seeds there, and that’s what gave me the idea to really start saving seeds seriously,” he said.

Two years later, he put out his first catalog, offering nearly 70 varieties in a 12-page, black-and-white newsletter format.

He offered the catalog for free through classified ads in farm newspapers and homesteading magazines.

“We sent out about 550 copies that first year. It was mainly a seed-trading thing. We got a few orders. I did everything myself, and it was basically a hobby,” Gettle says. “The next year, 1999, the year before Y2K, everybody was buying seeds. It gave us a good boost. We sent out 7,000 catalogs, and our sales jumped something like 4,000 percent.”

The hobby quickly became a business. Those sales provided the revenue for a color catalog.

The third year’s sales were similar to the second year’s sales, but after the third year, Gettle says, “It just started jumping.”

He built the store on the Gettle family farm the third year and hosted the first garden show and conference in 2001.

“We started the summer conference first,” Gettle says. “The first year, we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t have a building. We started pretty rustic; we didn’t have money to rent a tent. We just got poles and three big 20-by-40 tarps and put them up. The wind started blowing and we though it was going to blow away. We had 400 people that first year. We were expecting maybe 50-60.”

The following spring, he hosted another one, drawing 850 people.

The two conferences, spring and summer, continue to grow.

In 2004, the spring conference attracted 4,000 people; the summer conference drew 1,000.

“A lot of people feel like getting in the soil and talking to people about gardening in the spring,” Gettle says.

The conferences draw people from 18-23 states to the farm on Baker Creek Road.

“It’s surprising the different groups who show up,” he says of the two annual conferences. “You never know how people are going to come dressed.”

There are old hippies, back-to-the-landers, Amish/Mennonite, old, young, babies on hips and in strollers.

Most business is done mail order, but even way out in the middle of the Ozarks, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is sought out by customers who want to browse through the seed bins.

“We probably get about 10 cars a day,” Gettle says.

These customers are looking for open-pollinated, non-hybridized seeds that grow fruits and vegetables just like grandpa and grandma grew. With these heirloom plants, seeds can be saved from the fruits and vegetables and planted the next year with the assurance that the produce will be just like what grew before.

That isn’t the case with the hybrids that come from crossing varieties.

“You might have big tomatoes from a hybrid, but if you plant the seeds from those tomatoes, you don’t know what you’ll get,” says Gettle. “You might get cherry tomatoes.”

People interested in heirloom gardening don’t care whether the produce is uniform in size and shape; they’re looking for flavor.

“They remember their grandmothers’ or great-grandmothers’ gardens, or they go to specialty markets or farmers’ markets where there are sections for heirlooms, and they get really excited when they taste the difference,” Gettle says.

Gettle said people started becoming dependent on hybridized seeds from seed companies about 150 years ago.

“Before that, if you didn’t save seed, you didn’t have seed,” he said.

Now, if Gettle is encouraging people to save seeds by offering seeds that grow into plants that produce seeds that can be saved, isn’t he working himself out of a customer base?

Not really, he notes.

Even those customers who save seeds, want to try new varieties each year, so they continue buying his seed packets. Also, about 150 new varieties are found each year and these are added to the catalog.

Gettle also encourages seed saving and heirloom gardening through his magazine, The Heirloom Gardener, a quarterly, that has grown slowly but steadily.

His mother paints the artwork for most of the covers, and Gettle shoots most of the pictures for the magazine and the catalog himself.

Gettle notes that his parents help him during the conferences but they’re too busy running their cattle operation on Baker Creek Farm to work for the seed company regularly. He has a younger sister who works in the seed store about four days a week.

The work is done by Gettle himself and about a dozen employees.

Gettle says he grows 50-100 different crops on Baker Creek Farms, mostly beans, tomatoes and vine crops.

“I probably garden about half the time in the summer while I’m here,” he says.

The seeds also come from different growers.

“We have people who farm for us in truck patches,” he says. “They’ll grow anywhere from 10-15 varieties to 50-60 varieties or even 100 varieties from some of them,” he says.

Ironically, summer is the time he needs to be at work on growing sees, but it is also the only time he can get away on a trip to find new varieties. All other times of year are too busy.

Peak months for the seed season are February and March. Then comes preparation for the spring garden show/conference, then the event itself. After that, Gettle works in the garden, fulfills speaking engagements and tries to get away on a seed-seeking excursion.

“If I don’t get away in the summer, I won’t get away at all,” he says.

By the fall, he has to be near to ending the work on the catalog and getting ready to ship it to the printer.

“November is very busy with the catalog,” he says, noting that he likes to have the catalogs mailed so they are delivered by New Year’s Day.

The trips to other countries are important because “there’s an endless amount of variety out there,” he says. The United States lost most of its genetic diversity in fruits and vegetables in the 1970s, so trips to other countries to import new varieties is important for plant health.

“The danger is when big agriculture comes in and people quit growing,” he says. “We’ll lose that genetic diversity of somebody doesn’t keep growing these varieties.”

Gettle has been to Thailand, Cambodia and Burma and twice to Asia on seed-seeking trips.

“Basically what I usually do when I get into a country is I take a day or two to get acclimatized and then I just kind of head out and try to find small dealers who are dealing in open-pollinated and old-time varieties and after that I just head out into the mountains and drive. I look on the side of road for people selling unusual things and also the little towns every morning have a daily market. I go to the daily markets and just see what’s available.”

“Once I was driving down in Mexico. Tequila, Mexico, was the name of the town. I noticed people selling these great big black squash. I just stopped and collected seeds out of them. It’s been a really, really interesting pumpkin-type squash,” he says.

Gettle says he avoids anything that looks too uniform because it’s likely a hybrid.

“If I get them from a hillside village, they’re probably going to be good,” he says.

After bringing the seeds back, he grows them out to see if they’re going to stay true.

Gettle opposes genetic engineering of fruits and vegetables, calling such products “frankenfood.”

He notes that under the umbrella of homeland security, the United States government has made it more difficult to import seeds.

“It used to be that people who collected seeds could cross borders without any problems,” he says. “Under the Bush administration, they have implemented restrictions where you have to have phytosanitary certificates even for home gardens. So you can’t even bring one packet of seeds from Canada without a certificate.”

Such laws make it more difficult for small seed companies to operate.

“They’re trying to make it impossible for small companies to move seed, but they make it easy for big corporations to move seed back and forth,” he says.

The stated purpose is to prevent bioterrorism.

It’s odd, Gettle says, because, “We’re the only country breeding varieties that have been genetically altered. These seeds I import have been grown hundreds or even a thousand years and aren’t a threat, unless they’re seen as a threat to big corporations because too many small farmers and gardeners are using them.”

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