Heirloom Seeds with Jere Gettle
Jere Gettle has been saving garden seeds ever since he was a teenager. Today he is the owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co, whose mission is to preserve, save, and pass on unique varieties and rare seed from as many different cultures as they can.
Douglas Gayeton: You know, when people talk about our food system, they look at what's happened since the end of the Second World War, where we've seen a total consolidation of entire industries within our food system. And when industries consolidate, they don't really deconsolidate. What is that meant to what we eat in this country?
Jere Gettle: Over the last 50 years or so, in America, more and more of our food has came from our supermarkets and grocery stores. And as these stores have gotten larger and larger, they have also got farther and farther from the local farmers and the farms. And what that is meant to the diversity in our food supply is that most of our food is now produces in very few locations. Some is produced in California, Mexico, China... But, say if you're living in New York state or if you're living in Florida, oftentimes there might be only one percent of those produce in grocery stores coming from a reasonable distance around you. And at the same that's happening, all the traditional varieties that might have been growing in your climate have also disappeared. And that's what's inspiring the seed saving movement and the movement to local food, to get local food back, both bringing back the local varieties, the traditions and the local farms and the farmers and the communities themselves are reviving as farmers are starting to grow again. Its really bringing back the small town, small areas in America that had died out. It's really what's gonna bring them back is if we can get the farmers back growing again as well as getting healthier. Food is imported or transported hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Douglas Gayeton: What does it actually take to actually have seed security in a community or even in a country?
Jere Gettlee: Basically, everything that we eat in this country originates as a seed. Even milk, if you go back far enough, the cows have to eat the grass or corn or whatever it's coming from. The traditional variety of seeds are very important and localized because they are more resistant to local pests. Also, if you're producing it yourself or you're producing it in your community, you know that it's there. If it's coming form say a producer in China or a producer in another state even, there is no guarantee that you're going to have lettuce seed next year. Right now in this country about 55 percent of our lettuce seed is produced by one supplier. So, if that supplier decides to quit producing lettuce seed, it's going to cause a global shortage in lettuce. And that's just one example of why it's important for local, small needs as well as farmers and gardeners and communities that come behind and get seed saving becoming part of our education, a part of our culture again, actually growing, saving and passing on what we eat, making it a part of our daily lives.
Douglas Gayeton: Could you explain to us what an heirloomseed is?
Jere Gettle: Heirloomseeds are fascinating to me because of their history and what an Heirloom seed really is really a piece of living history. So many things is unattainable. If I wanted a rare piece of art, it's unattainable for me as an individual in many cases. But, an heirloom seed is something that's cheap and is passed down oftentimes taking from a neighbor for free. And it literally takes you back hundreds of years. An heirloom seed is one that is OPEN pollinated, which is means it will come back through the type, unlike hybrid and genetically engineered varieties. You're allowed to save your own seed. It's basically controlled by the people vs. being controlled by corporations. So, an heirloom seed is like seeds always were until the like the 1940's and 50's when people started to hybridize and patent seeds indefinitely to keep control on the market. Heirloom seeds take us beck to a time when seeds were part of a community and they're not hybridized and not patented or controlled in any way.
Douglas Gayeton: When we talk about seeds and we talk about connecting communities with people sharing seeds I'm always reminded of seed catalogues, even your own, which associates that don't have any bioregional, specific, they're not about a place. Isn't important also to have seeds that are of a place, just in terms making them stronger, more resilient, more able to adapt to a local climate.
Jere Gettle: Localized varieties of seeds and plants are very important in many cases, especially if you're in a region where you have very short seasons. Finding a variety that would develop in your climate or similar climates also can work. If you're in Maine, varieties from Canada often work. But, if you're in Florida, varieties from the tropical countries or parts of Florida, Texas and so forth where you have really warm climates, you might have more disease problems. You need things that will thrive in those climates. And unfortunately, much of modern breeding has went into develop varieties that thrive in the perfect climate. They're developing things that thrive in the Central Valley in California vs. developing things that might thrive in Montana. So, breeding has all way went to... in the recent years has went into developing things that thrive in their ideal climate where people are gonna produce them in a mass scale fo supermarkets. So that's why old varieties and regional varieties are really important to keep going because nobody is really working on a large scale to develop new regional and localized varieties that are going to do well in climates all across America and across the planet.
Douglas Gayeton: You know so much of what you do is focused on identifying, preserving and ultimately selling a lot of really rare seeds from around the country. Do you see yourself as someone who is a cultural preservationist?
Jere Gettle: I definitely see myself as somebody who is trying to preserve this country's seeds along with many other people. I mean, it's a project that everybody should work towards that is a gardener. Everybody that is a gardener should be working to save something even though it's just one variety from your community. I feel it's important. And that's what I try to do on a daily basis is find new varieties that are actually old varieties and do something to encourage people to grow those to promote them. If I can't take them on myself, I try to find somebody to keep them alive cause there's always somebody with an either antique apple or an old variety of potato or garlic or something else that they want to give to us to try to help to find a home for it. So, it's something that I believe in doing. I think it's very important for both preserving really the fascinating diversity and types of flavors and colors in history, the stories. Keeping these stories alive is almost as important as keeping the diversities alive cause it's keeping our food tradition alive and making food interesting and educational at the same time.
Douglas Gayeton: Based upon this life-long experience that you had with seeds, how do you feel is the best way to educate consumers about the importance of seeds and seed saving and seed sharing?
Jere Gettle: I think probably the best way to educate consumers about seeds and food and plants in general is to bring them into your garden, bring them into a farmer's market and let them see firsthand, take them to an event where there are lots of different varieties or a restaurant. Let them learn the histories. And also meet the farmers, take them out where there's actual farmers and have them meet the farmers that are actually struggling to save the different varieties. And I think when people see both the need to preserve the varieties under danger, and also taste, feel and smell they'll notice the difference between what they're eating from the farms and what they're getting from a fast-food restaurant or from a grocery store. And I think that's one of the greatest things you can do is just, especially children, take them to a farm, let them play in the dirt for a little while. School groups are always fascinated when they visit our farm, they love trying different watermelons and looking at the chickens and seeing what a farm used to look like. Farming used to be something that was interesting and diverse, not something that you rode a big tractor around and did 3500 acres every summer.