Carolyn R. Tomlin

Does Henderson’s Black Valentine Bean sound familiar? What about Black Aztec Sweet Corn grown by the Iroquois nation? Or, Thai Sponge Gourds? Or, Dr. Wyche’s Yellow Tomatoes, introduced by the late Dr. Wyche, who at one time owned the Cole Brothers Circus and used the manure of elephants to fertilize his heritage gardens.

Located in south central Missouri near Mansfield, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is not your ordinary type of farming business. Neither is Jere Gettle, entrepreneur and owner. With 190 varieties of tomatoes, 150 varieties of squash and over 100 melons, it’s one of the nation’s largest vendors for organic and heirloom seeds.

Gettle, now 28 years old, started young. At age 4, he planted a squash and tomato garden. In a few years, he was attending swap meets and exchanging the seeds he stored in handmade envelopes. In 1996, at age 16, the young gardener joined the Seed Savers Exchange, a national organization devoted to the preservation of old-time heirloom varieties. He was on his way to his dream of starting his own seed company.

Other than being the location of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Mansfield is known as the home of American Writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. Gettle’s land comprises 176 acres that was once a cattle farm owned by his family. Generations ago, the historic site was home to an Osage Indian encampment and Civil War soldiers were cared for in the hand-hewn log cabin that survives.

“Running a seed business is a 12-months-a-year job,” says Gettle. “The peak season is during the late winter and early spring when orders must be processed, seeds packed and shipped. At that time, the company employs from 18 to 22 people. Some of the employees are loyal customers through the years. During summer, we grow and harvest seeds, then prepare them for storage and shipping.”

Like many farming operations, Heirloom Seeds relies on family and friends. Using the artistic talents of his mother, D. L. Gettle, colorful and unique drawings add a special touch to the catalogs. These are also available as cover art greeting cards. Gettle’s wife, Emilee, is also actively involved in the business.

“Thanks to an almost perfect Missouri summer in 2007,” adds Gettle, “the temperature, rainfall and sunshine made for a great growing season. I was able to harvest every crop planted for trial and seed production, which totaled almost 200 varieties.” With a Troy-Bilt tiller and a John Deere tractor, Gettle grows seeds on approximately 2 acres annually. Plants receive applications of Ferti-Lome Fish Emulsion. This product is derived from concentrated fish solubles supplying the natural release of essential nutrients for the development of green foliage, vigorous root systems and solid plant structures. Another natural product is Lawn & Garden Green Light Spray with Spinosad. This Bioganic insecticide does not significantly impact beneficial insects, but controls a broad spectrum of pests, including fire ants, caterpillars and others. Relying on natural materials controls most of the insects.

Marketing tips

Like any business, Gettle realizes advertising is essential to growth. It isn’t enough just to grow fruit and vegetable seeds; consumers must know where to purchase these items. One of the first marketing ideas was publishing a seed catalog. In 1998, at age 17, he published 500 copies of a black-and-white, 12-page booklet. The 2008 catalog contains 100 colored pages, over 1,200 varieties of seeds and a record printing of 110,000 copies. Plus, over 200 new flavorful, fragrant and ever-more-unique foreign varieties from around the globe fill the pages. The catalog describes each item as to its native land and a brief historical overview.

“We live in the age of technology,” says Gettle. “Today, we sell more seeds from the Internet online Web sites than from mail order or telephone calls.” Growers must keep up with the latest marketing trends in fruits and vegetables. Digital photographs have to be of good color and a sharp image, as quality photos help sell the item. Technology saves time and is essential to record-keeping and cutting costs.

Black Futsu Squash is a rich-tasting small Japanese Heirloom squash.

The Web sites provide educational value to growers of fruits and vegetables. You can browse through the tens of thousands of seed listings that come from historic seed companies of the early days in the garden seed industry. Entire catalogs, magazines and booklets are located in this massive online resource.

Another way to market Heirloom Seeds was the opening of Bakersville, “The Pioneer Village,” built in 2007. This new project depicts a living history village and farm, right in the historic 1850s homestead of the Ozark Mountains. With the help of some local Amish builders, they started with an old-time mercantile store. Next, they added an apothecary, a native stone oven, a new music barn, a historic jail, a brick herb garden and new heirloom poultry houses. Future plans include a seed museum, blacksmith shop, historic livestock barns, a bakery, a hatchery, new gardens and more.

Growers have also responded to wholesome, family entertainment. Heritage Day Festivals are held the first Sunday of each month, year-round, with approximately 500 people attending. Fun-filled festivals celebrate each season with produce, music, crafts and garden speakers. The ninth annual Heirloom Garden Show features speakers on gardening history, saving seeds, growing fruit and vegetables, cooking, hand pollinating, marketing, pest control and much more about many heirloom and organic crops.

Festivals bring crowds to hear live jamming with great musicians, playing country, folk, bluegrass and western tunes. Over 5,000 people from many states make their way to Bakersville for the annual garden shows and festival days.

Over 100 varieties of Heirloom Melon seeds are available for growers.

Free tent and RV camping is allowed for the festivals. Vendors are welcome to bring garden tools, seeds, crafts and produce. A small price is charged for vendors.

People come to Bakersville and they learn about organic and heirloom seeds. They tell their friends and word spreads about the company.

Seeds from around the world

Baker Creek offers a wide variety of seeds from 66 foreign countries.

“America is enriched from the cultural heritage from so many people,” says Gettle. “History tells us that when people immigrated to this country, they often brought native seeds. It’s a small thing, but such an important part of bringing your past with you. Seeds of favorite foods remind us of home. Baker Creek has many Amish and Mennonite friends who share kernels passed down through several generations. Each year we add more countries and a wider variety.”

Another way of expanding our collection comes from the Gettles’ own travel and that of friends. Internet customers often request seeds that were used in their own country before coming to the States.

Gettle has over 50 small farmers, gardeners and seed collectors who work with Baker Creek to bring consumers the best selection of seeds available.

Making the world a better place

With a goal to help provide seeds to many educational and humanitarian projects, Baker Creek is committed to making the world a better place. Customers are invited to become involved in this charity project by adding $1 and marking “Seeds for Peace” on their order blank. This will supply five packets to a worthwhile cause.

Gettle receives requests from schools that have a curriculum teaching students to grow their own produce. People in the inner city are planting community gardens to provide families with nutritious foods. Prisons and orphanages are other places that use seeds. “Often, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or weather-related events cause people in Third World countries to lose their seeds for the upcoming planting season,” says Gettle. “We try to help these people become self-supporting by supplying seeds that will feed their families.” The following letter tells of one such project:

“Thank you Baker Creek Seed Co. for your donation of seeds for the garden project in Diriamba, Nicaragua. A community garden was planted with those seeds and many people will benefit. The people of Diriamba thank you & I thank you! God Bless!”—Laura Virnig

Advice for Seeds Distributors

Jere Gettle has accomplished more in the first 10 years of this start-up industry than many in business for years. When asked what advice he could give to others, he offers these suggestions:
• First, have a passion for what you do. You must like your work.
• Plan for a sufficient cash flow in the start-up phase.
• Let people know you are there. Think of unusual ways to market your product.
• Never compromise on integrity. Do what you say you’ll do for customers.
• Stand behind what you grow and sell. Be responsible to consumers.
• Trust your clients. People who buy seeds and grow their own food are hardworking, honest people.
• Encourage people to grow their own food or buy from local markets.
• Give back to the community and choose charities where you can make donations of produce.

Baker Creek Web Sites

Seed Site: www.rareseeds.com
Garden Forums:
www.idigmygarden.com
Seed History Site:
www.heirloomseedsmen.com
Bakersville Site:
www.streetsofbakersville.com
Magazine Site:
www.theheirloomgardener.com
Jere Gettle’s Photo Site:
www.gettle.org

Carolyn R. Tomlin is a freelance writer in Jackson, Tenn. She welcomes story ideas on growing vegetables and fruits.