Meet cover girl Emilee Gettle, whose family farm and seed company boasts the largest selection of heirloom seeds in the country.
Don’t look in china cabinets or cedar chests for the heirlooms Emilee and Jere Gettle collect. Their treasures fill backyard gardens and feed growing families.
“We have the largest selection of heirloom seeds in the country—more than 1,400 varieties offered in our catalog, website and retail stores,” Emilee says of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., based on their family farm near Mansfield, Missouri. “Most of our seeds originated between 1850 and 1950, but others are much older.
“Each growing season, we test new historic varieties. It’s thrilling to share heirlooms that have been near extinction and reintroduce them to the public.
“I can put vegetables on the table like those Thomas Jefferson ate and grow the same kinds of flowers that brightened gardens in the Old West.”
Heirlooms are living, breathing herbs, vegetables and flowers cultivated from saved seeds, repositories of a plant’s natural lineage. “Like family antiques, heirloom seeds have been passed down through generations without re-engineering in a lab,” Emilee says. “They literally connect
us to our roots.”
Her husband’s passion for heirlooms grew naturally from his childhood interest in gardening; his parents and grandparents had him digging from the time he was a toddler. Soon, young Jere was collecting and exchanging antique seeds the way other kids swapped comic books. The hobby turned into a business in 1998 when, at 17, he mailed his first 12-page seed catalog to 550 people and personally filled all orders by hand.
Emilee’s thumb turned green when she was young, too. She read seed catalogs like novels. When she received the one from Baker Creek, though, it wasn’t just the plants that caught her eye.
“Jere and I first met at his seed store in the spring of 2006,” she recalls. “By harvest of that same year we were married. Our wedding reception was catered with heirloom produce.”
The following year, the two created Bakersville, a pioneer-style living history museum, on their 176-acre homestead. Staffed by employees in period costume, the village includes an old-time restaurant, an apothecary that sells Emilee’s dried herbs and seasonings, and a mercantile that houses a museum dedicated to the history of the seed industry.
Open year-round, Bakersville hosts monthly festivals the first Sunday of every month, March through October, as a way to meet customers. “Our largest is the Spring Planting Festival in May, which features crafters and folk and bluegrass musicians,” Emilee says. “We had over 6,000 guests visit us last year from across the country.”
Well known in seed circles worldwide, the Gettles work with some 130 farmers across the U.S., plus several in Europe, who grow seeds for them. The couple and their staff also tend trial gardens on their property, and dry and warehouse part of their seed inventory.
“My husband has traveled the world researching sources for seeds, and we regularly visit farmers markets and roadside stands, looking for heirloom varieties we’ve missed,” Emilee says. “People bring seeds to us that they’ve passed along in their family for over a century. Each plant has its own life story, and a lot to say about the people who cared enough to preserve them.”
Emilee shares many of these sagas in the company magazine she edits, Heirloom Gardener; her blog, heirloomgirl.com; and the 124-page annual catalog she helps Jere design.
She also feels a personal connection to the produce, because heirlooms are key ingredients in the meals she makes for herself, Jere and 3-year old daughter Sasha.
“In summer, I rarely go to the store because of the bounty in our garden,” she notes.
Baker Creek customers include farmers, home gardeners, urban apartment dwellers and chefs, as well as botanical gardens, theme parks and historical sites, she says. To meet growing demand, the Gettles recently opened two new retail seed stores on opposite coasts, in Connecticut and California.
“It’s often estimated that over 90 percent of the fruit and vegetable varieties grown in the United States in 1900 have since been lost,” Emilee says. “We feel it’s our job to protect this cultural and historical heritage for the future.”
As part of this mission, the company donates seeds to developing nations and, in the U.S., to nonprofit organizations, schools and children’s gardening programs.
“Sasha is planting her own garden this year with help from her Grandpa Gettle,” Emilee adds. “She also loves saving seeds—especially when it involves picking them out as she’s eating a juicy chunk of watermelon!”
Little Plants on the Prairie
Fans of the Little House books may recognize the Gettles’ hometown, Mansfield, Missouri, as the place where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her beloved series. Emilee and Jere have managed
to recapture the author’s pioneer spirit by bringing her garden back to life.
“We work with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum to maintain the garden she, her husband, Almanzo, and daughter Rose tended,” Emilee says. “For authenticity, we planted heirloom vegetables that were appropriate to 1894, when they settled on their Ozarks farm.”
Visitors to the historic site (open March 1-Nov. 15) can see the same varieties of tomatoes, squash and melons the Wilders raised and savored at the family dinner table. Interested in visiting? Learn more here.
For a free catalog or to order the Gettles’ new book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, visit rareseeds.com or call Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 417-924-8917.