Guardians of the Heirloom Seeds

Due to industrial standardization of crops over the last 50 years, we’re all familiar with the produce that appears in supermarkets—that narrow selection solely bred for transportation and longer shelf life.

But anyone who shops at farmers’ markets and natural products stores is aware of the many more colorful and interesting varieties known as heirlooms. These have only survived extinction due to efforts of people like Jere Gettle.

From their company Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Jere Gettle, along with his wife Emilee, provides some 1,400 different varieties of heirloom seeds to customers all over the world. In addition, they publish a quarterly magazine called Heirloom Gardenerand were instrumental in creating the National Heirloom Exhibition, which last year attracted about 15,000 attendees.

A Lifelong Passion

The roots of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds go well back, to a time long before the raising of heirlooms became fashionable. While much of the population was shopping in supermarket produce aisles, blissfully unaware of the quietly vanishing diversity, Gettle—though just a young child—was already farming. “I started planting when I was three,” Gettle told Calmful Living. “Some of the first memories I have as a child are planting the garden with my parents and grandparents.”

His interest in providing seeds followed right along. “When I was four and five, I used to look through seed catalogs,” Gettle continued. “I would dream of what it must be like to work at a seed company, work with seeds and gardening, and grow vegetables and so forth. I loved growing vegetables; that’s what I always dreamed of doing full time.”

Deep History and Diversity

Also early on, Gettle’s interest took him in the direction of the diversity and wonder of heirloom varieties. “When I was a child, the term heirloom wasn’t even being used,” he recalled. “But I was always interested in the unusual, the old, the colorful. And the heirloom varieties were the things that were unique—the giant radishes and the white cucumbers and so forth. They are the varieties that tend to have diversity.”

It wasn’t only the unique colors and shapes that attracted Gettle, however. It was equally the rich histories behind each of these varieties. “In my preteens, the term heirloom started to come around, and I was beginning to read the histories of the different varieties,” he said. “It’s very fascinating to be able to plant something that Thomas Jefferson grew; or maybe something an ancient Roman emperor grew, or the ancient Chinese. Or, it might be something that was in someone’s family for hundreds of years, or part of someone’s culture or tradition. There are all these old varieties in a culture that mean a lot in making ethnic foods correct; it would be far preferable to use the actual tomato that was always used, for example, in different recipes than just a store-bought tomato.”

The Heirloom Path

It didn’t take long for Gettle to establish his life’s career path. “When I was a teenager I kept thinking about the idea of starting a seed company,” he related. “So when I was 17, after a number of years of growing different things, I started printing a little price list. It was simply a 12-page black-and-white run-off at the local copy shop. We sent out approximately 550 of those, with around 75 different varieties on the list. It’s just kind of grown from there.”

Gettle gave a couple of examples of the amazing crops available. “There are some really great varieties in tomatoes,” he said. “One of my personal favorites is the Jersey Devil. It came from New Jersey, and they actually used it in their canning industry back before modern hybrids became commonplace in production. It’s a long, pointed tomato, roughly six inches in length, shaped like a devil’s horn. The neat thing about these tomatoes is that they’re bright red and have an incredibly good, sweet flavor and very few seeds, unlike most commercial Roman-type tomatoes you buy in a grocery store.

“Our overall number one best-selling watermelon is the Ali Baba. It’s a variety that was sent to us from a seed collector in Iraq just after we started in 1998, and we’ve been growing it since. It has a bright red flesh and a very hard rind, so it keeps very well. It’s one of the sweetest watermelons we’ve grown. It also seems to grow better in drought conditions or dry conditions than a lot of the other watermelons. It’s done well for growers from southern Maine to Florida to California and all but the most northern areas, even where a lot of the other big traditional watermelons won’t produce.”

Genetic Diversity

Beyond the colors, shapes and histories of these varieties, Gettle sees crucial importance in the genetic diversity of them. “We must also preserve the genetics of these varieties—genetics that are in danger of disappearing,” said Gettle. “Genetic engineering, hybridization and the commercialization of agriculture are basically limiting what people can grow both legally and technically.”

The encroachment of big agriculture has also meant another limiting factor on the grower. “It’s making it very difficult for anybody that wants to save seeds,” Gettle explained. “For a commercial farmer who’s growing commercial crops, even if the crop isn’t genetically engineered, in many instances it’s patented or hybridized. In most cases the farmer can’t just go back to his farm and save seeds like he always has done. Since the beginning of farming, farmers have always taken home that seed, dried it and saved it.

“That’s another reason why heirlooms are important—they bring back the independence to gardeners and farmers to actually know who is providing their food from the seed up, versus just getting it from the seed supplier. You are in charge of your own seed; you can save it and replant it. With a hybrid off the rack at a grocery store, you’re not going to get the same type of vegetable in general as what you planted, and if you plant a patented seed it’s actually illegal to save and replant the seeds. Most modern varieties are patented, so in fact it’s a criminal offense to save your own seed if it’s from a patented type.”

The Never-Ending Search

Gettle and his wife are always on the lookout for new varieties—and are constantly finding them. “We just got back from a trip to Thailand, Europe and the Middle East,” Gettle said. “In Thailand, we traveled through the hill-tribe areas, dealing with the Hmong and Lisu tribes and others, where a lot of the different heirlooms are still being maintained. One of the varieties we collected was a really big round cucumber, the shape of a honeydew melon. It has bright yellow skin and delicious slightly sweet, very mild cucumber flesh. We also brought back a variety of really good squashes, as well as some cool eggplants in shapes and colors that we didn’t have in the collection.

“When we don’t travel, people send us things. A lady from Syria has been corresponding with us over the last year, sending us seeds and stories of various eggplants, squashes, melons, cucumbers and other vegetables with histories. A lady from Greece is doing the same. A gentleman from Portugal has been sending us things for several years. People are always sending us things—from the Philippines to South America to Japan and everywhere in between, and of course from America as well.”

It’s clear that for many years to come, Gettle will be fulfilling his life’s mission—finding and keeping alive the wondrous tradition, history, color, flavor and shapes of heirloom varieties.

Thanks to people like Gettle keeping watch over our true agricultural legacy for so many years, we are free today to enjoy this amazing diversity.

For more information, please visit www.rareseeds.com.