By Ettie Berneking // Photos by Travis duncan
Mansfield, Missouri, is a short 60 minute drive east of Springfield along Highway 60, which twists past a handful of small towns. The scenery juts between vast acres of farmland and the gently rolling Ozark hills, until you get just outside of Mansfield. When you turn north on Highway 5, the woods suddenly get thicker, the hills steeper. Here, trees are more intertwined and twisted, like their branches were caught in a constant fistfight as they grew upward, entangled, toward the sun – but the hills are covered in soft green grass. That’s the beauty of the Ozarks – bursts of splendor intermixed with dark and rugged landscape.
Turn onto London Road, and you’re in the heart of the woods, where towering trees hug you on both sides and pops of purple and yellow wildflowers are scattered everywhere.
In the hills just outside of the small town, is Bakersville – as it’s been affectionately nicknamed – home to Jere Gettle, his wife Emilee and their two young daughters, Sasha and Malia.
The Gettles run Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. – a 15-acre seed emporium where home gardeners and chefs flock to stock up on rare seeds to grow unusual produce from juicy black krim tomatoes to bright watermelon radishes.
Since starting his own seed business when he was just 17 years old, Gettle has watched Baker Creek grow exponentially. Each year, more and more gardeners, farmers and chefs are interested in the seeds that first captured Gettle’s imagination as a curious 3-year-old who loved nothing more than digging in the garden. Those fruits and vegetables are now taking up more space on menus across the Midwest, and Gettle couldn’t be happier.
“I always dreamed of one day working for a seed company and introducing people to seeds,” Gettle says. “Our business really started growing as people wanted to save money on groceries and eat healthier. We see moms who are worried about what [is put into] foods or they want something to do with the kids or their grandparents. That really pushed our growth.”
As word has spread about Gettle’s impressive assortment of seed varieties – some of which date back more than 2,000 years – Baker Creek has become a destination for gardeners across the region, with two additional locations in California and Connecticut.
When you pull into Bakersville, the thicket of trees gives way to acres of flower and vegetable gardens. An assortment of wood-slated and metal buildings house the seed store, restaurant, warehouses and the storage room where Gettle’s seeds are sorted and packaged. The restaurant serves up fresh produce from the farm, while the surrounding acres play home to gardens, flowerbeds and an assortment of geese, ducks, donkeys, chickens and peacocks.
A visit to Bakersville is a little like stepping back in time. The employees all wear pioneer-themed garb and farm animals abound. The finishing touch: Just outside of the store, a donkey brays at you if you get too close to its pen. But inside the warehouse, where the seeds are packaged and waiting to be shipped around the world, the operation is very much of the 21st century. Seeds are tested for germination in 4-foot tall incubators, and in the back of the warehouse, racks of seed packages line the walls. The room is pitch-black except for flashes of light from the light projectors positioned along the ceiling. As orders are filled, the projectors shine a light on the sought-after seeds and display the number of packets needed in that order. Employees place the packets onto a conveyor belt that runs down the middle of the room, and mechanical arms punch the packets into boxes, which will later be shipped to seed enthusiasts. It took more than 150,000 lines of code just to make the projectors operate.
This tech-heavy system has improved Baker Creek’s efficiency significantly, and has helped remove some of the human error involved in filling orders. In another room, a large machine fills seed packets one per second. This high-efficiency system is a long way from the small bedroom where Gettle started his company 17 years ago.
“That was probably the best garden area of all my life. Everything grows there; it’s so fertile.” With all of his grandparents living nearby, Gettle was never without a garden to play in. His dad raised cattle and corn, and he helped his mom grow the fruits and vegetables that kept the family well-fed year-round. “We tried to sell some of the vegetables,” he says. “But everyone had a garden back then, so you ate what you grew.” When life on the farm slowed down in the winter, Gettle kept himself entertained by flipping through the pages of seed catalogs. He joined Seed Savers Exchange and started requesting a variety of seeds.
When Gettle was 13 years old, his family transplanted to Missouri – to the farm where Baker Creek sits today – and he decided that he had saved enough seeds and wanted to put out his own catalog. “I had saved 75 different varieties and thought, ‘Why not print up a price list and send it out to people?’” he says. And just like that, the company was born. That first year, Gettle mailed 550 catalogs and received about 200 orders. The catalog was little more than a 30-page photocopy that was bound with staples. But, the next year, Gettle mailed 9,000 catalogs. By 2000, business was starting to really pick up, and the Rubbermaid containers that held Gettle’s seed collection in his bedroom were starting to spill into the rest of the house.
“A few of our neighbors came to help us out during the busier periods, but we were still operating out of my bedroom,” Gettle says. “Even when we put in the seed wall in the house, my parents didn’t really think the business would grow this much. I didn’t really, either.” But by 2003 it was clear that Baker Creek was going to be a hit, and that what started as a hobby for Gettle was now a full-fledged business. This year alone, Baker Creek catalogs hit mailboxes in force, reaching 430,000 households. And gardening enthusiasts aren’t the only ones interested in Gettle’s operation – Baker Creek’s story has made its way into the pages of The New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.
Gettle believes there are a mix of reasons why people’s interest in seeds has grown, whether due to more awareness of GMOs and the benefits of eating organic, or simply the sheer excitement of growing fruits and vegetables from start to finish. “There is so much more than a tiny red tomato you can get out of that little seed,” Gettle says. Gardeners can find 1,600 seed varieties in the Baker Creek catalog, from dozens of tomatoes and leafy greens to rare varieties such as the black radish, which dates back some 2,000 years and boasts a strong horseradish flavor.
With several acres of gardens to play in, Gettle and his family are constantly planting new seeds. “We really try to grow as much as we can during the spring and summer,” Gettle says. In a small greenhouse, a collection of citrus trees including lemon and papaya offers a burst of fresh flavor during the winter, when they hit their peak. And those chickens and ducks that waddle around the farm, those are just pets. The Gettles are vegans, so they really appreciate the vast amount of flavors and texture their harvest yields.
Two of Baker Creek’s most sought-after seeds are its Cherokee purple tomato and black krim tomato – but especially the black krim, for its bluish-purple color and fruity grape flavor.
Gettle travels all over the world looking for new seeds to bring back to Bakersville. He’s jumped from Mexico and Guatemala on over to Thailand, where he’s found a treasure trove of ancient seed varieties. “You learn lots of different stories that go with the seeds, and you meet the people who grow those [seeds] and learn their methods,” he says.
Uncovering a wealth of diverse and long-lost seeds is part of the thrill for Gettle – that, and enjoying the spectrum of flavors each new fruit and vegetable offers. “Part of the fun for me,” Gettle says, “is being able to introduce someone to a seed that might have been lost in their family for 30 or 40 years. There was a guy from Japan who was thrilled to find a squash he hadn’t seen in years, and he found it in our catalog.” The stories and history behind each seed variety are a huge part of what initially hooked Gettle’s interest all those years ago.
As interest in the company continues to grow, its once rare and exotic seeds are becoming more and more commonplace in Mansfield and across the globe. As a child, Gettle dreamed of introducing people to new and exciting seeds, but his passion has imparted another gift: spreading greater awareness and appreciation of the vivid colors and vibrant flavors that are easily grown in one’s own backyard.
Best In Grow
Give your green thumb a teaser with Baker Creek’s 10 most popular seeds.
Seed name: Genovese Basil Origin: Italy – Genoa, Savona, Imperia Growing conditions: Full sun and a lot of moisture Flavor: Very aromatic and a universal favorite among American gardeners Cooking: Fine for use as an herb, but productive enough for pesto
Seed name: Country Gentleman Sweet Corn Origin: Introduced in 1890 by S.D. Woodruff and Sons seed company in Connecticut Growing conditions: Full sun and rich soil Flavor: Sweet and very mild flavor; white shoe-peg kernels are a bit irregular in that the kernels don’t grow in straight rows Cooking: Makes great cream-style corn
Seed name: Mexican Sour Gherkin Origin: Mexico and Central America Growing conditions: Full sun to partial shade and moist, rich garden soil Flavor: Tastes like a cucumber, but is tart and lemony Cooking: Great for snacking as is, but also makes great pickles because of the tart flavor; as an added bonus, this cute fruit looks like a miniature watermelon
Seed name: Pink Brandywine Tomato Origin: First identified in an Ohio garden, but ultimately its origin is unclear Growing conditions: Full sun and rich garden soil Flavor: This tomato is widely regarded as the standard for flavor, meaning this is what a tomato should taste like – rich and complex, with a great balance of sweet and tart Cooking: The size and flavor make it superb for slicing, but less well-known is the fact that it is also good for canning
Seed name: Chinese Red Noodle Bean Origin: Far East Growing conditions: Likes full sun and lots of heat, and it can tolerate drought Flavor: These pods, which can grow to be more than a foot long, have a rich, “beany” flavor Cooking: Best when lightly cooked; braising or stir-frying are ideal
Seed name: Cherokee Purple Tomato Origin: This tomato is rooted in tradition with the Native American Cherokee tribe of Tennessee Growing conditions: Full sun and rich garden soil Flavor: Rich, earthy, complex Cooking: Great as a slicer, also widely used in salsas
Seed name: Arugula Origin: Mediterranean region Growing conditions: Likes cool conditions, takes frost and prefers full sun and rich soil Flavor: Tangy and pepper-like, but also very uniquely flavored Cooking: Use for a different punch of flavor in salads
Seed name: Bloomsdale Long-Standing Spinach Origin: Introduced by Landreth Seed Co. in the early 1800s Growing conditions: Needs full sun (partial shade in warmer conditions), rich soil and adequate moisture Flavor: Nutty flavor with acidic overtones Cooking: Use raw in salads, steam as greens, or serve almost anything on a bed of it and call the dish “Florentine”
Seed name: Boston Pickling Cucumber Origin: New England, before 1880 Growing conditions: Warm conditions, adequate moisture and rich soil – a definite summer crop Flavor: Mild Cooking: An old standard for pickles
Seed name: Parsley “Giant of Italy” Origin: Italy Growing conditions: Prefers cool to cold conditions and ample moisture Flavor: Very full-flavored and aromatic, and yet very light Cooking: Superb in cooked dishes such as soups and stews, but even better used raw, so the subtle flavor and delicate aroma can be appreciated
Baker Creek Heriloom Seed Co., Mansfield, 417.924.8917, rareseeds.com