Fourteen years ago, at the age of 17, Jere Gettle put together his first list of heirloom seeds and mailed it to 550 gardeners. Now he oversees a veritable empire consisting of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, the Bakersville Pioneer Village complete with seed store, bakery, restaurant, jail, herbal apothecary, music barns with monthly festivals and more in Missouri, and the Petaluma Seed Bank in California, which opened last spring. Most recently he bought the Comstock, Ferre Seed Company in Wethersfield, Connecticut, New England’s oldest seed company that had been in business since at least 1811. An Amish construction crew went in to start working on the Comstock buildings shortly after the sale was completed in November of 2010.
Gettle’s passion is for heirloom seeds, seeds that are not hybrids, not patented and not genetically modified. In the new Comstock, Ferre catalog, Gettle has written a letter to his customers about his criticism of GMOs. “Our company boycotts all companies that practice the new-fangled technology called genetic modification. We feel that it is an abomination to insert toxic animal genes into seeds or alter them in order that they can be sprayed with unlimited amounts of weed killer. We are also boycotting the ‘American Seed Trade Association (ASTA). They have become a powerful GMO lobbying group that is putting profit first and trying to make patents last even longer, keeping farmers from saving seed!”
Gettle is very aware of the developments in modern agriculture, as he is aware of developments in the modern business world. Even though he is usually photographed in overalls and colorful shirts or a tunic common to the 19th century farmer, he knows his way around marketing and the new media.
I spoke to Gettle on the phone earlier this week and asked him about the contradiction between the homespun presentation of his businesses, and the fact that he has a big presence on the Internet with his Rareseeds.com website, Facebook pages for both seed companies and the Seed Bank. “To keep the old ways alive you have to have funds. Brick and mortar stores aren’t enough. You have to adapt and have retail and online. You have to use everything you can. The seed market has been growing these past few years, but it is still a difficult business. Catalogs and shipping are expensive, and we are selling things for two dollars a packet. We need to sell a lot,” he said.
It should be mentioned that Gettle does actually sell more than seeds. On his website you can buy mugs, t-shirts and calendars, and hand tools. When you visit Bakersville festivals you will be able to shop and eat.
In September Gettle will be cooperating with the Seed Saver’s Exchange (he’s been a member since 1996) and the D. Landreth Seed Company to host the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. On the bill will be growers and chefs. “We hope this will be an annual event, although we are talking about possibly alternating locations, one year on the east coast and one year on the west coast.”
Gettle explained that other heirloom seed companies are not his competition. He is happy to work with these other companies. It is the companies that sell patented and GMO seeds that he competes with.
Gettle is always on the lookout for delicious heirloom vegetables. Their seed list now numbers about 1,400 varieties. He looks for American varieties, but he has also traveled to Asia looking for good vegetables and seeds that will grow here. “We haven’t traveled too much in the past couple of years while we were working on these big projects, but I’m hoping to travel again soon. Sometimes we are given connections in other countries, but we just travel and talk to people when we see interesting seed packets in a store, or vegetables at a market. I don’t travel with a translator usually. Usually we can understand each other one way or another, or sometimes there will be a person around who can speak a little English,” he said.
When we were in China, we found, like Gettle, that if there is a seller and a buyer, commerce will win out and a sale will be made, with very little language needed. It can make for a funny picture, though.
When I asked Gettle what there was about him, what made him so successful, he brushed the question aside. “It’s just been a blessing to do what we love, and the timing is good. The interest in sustainable farming and local eating has grown a lot over the past ten years, and that has helped a lot,” he said.
I am sure that is true, but I think there is always a mysterious something that drives and informs a man like Jere Gettle that enables him to turn principles and passions into a successful business.
The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog is beautiful and glitzy or gardeners can go online to www.rareseeds.com. Gettle also publishes a quarterly magazine, The Heirloom Gardener, and the fall will see the release of The Heirloom Life, the first of three books he is writing with his wife Emilee. I guess he knows how to use the old media, print, as well as new media.
Between the Rows January 8, 2011