I’ve been a big fan of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company since the very beginnings of this blog. (I love looking back to that first year I started gardening, when all of the seeds I owned could fit into two vintage cigar boxes. Quite a difference from the multiple ammo cans I now keep them in!)
I devoured their seed catalog every winter, dog-earing pages of vegetables I wanted to try and marking colorful varieties that caught my eye. Long before Garden Betty was ever a brand, years before I even published a book, the fine folks at Baker Creek were behind me 100 percent. To say they were the first supporters of my blog (when I was an enthused but novice gardener) is not far from the truth — and for that, I’ll always be thankful.
When owner Jere Gettle and manager Paul Wallace popped by my garden for a visit a few years ago, I was even more enthralled by the work they were doing to promote pure food. Selling seeds is only one part of their business; supporting sustainable farming, championing the non-GMO movement, speaking out against the patenting of seeds, fighting corporate control of our food system, and preserving heirloom varieties from some 75 countries round out the core of Baker Creek’s mission.
After speaking at the Spring Planting Festival last year, I had an opportunity to wander their pioneer village, tour the farm and get a glimpse of the seed-packing operation, all set against the rolling green hills of the Missouri Ozarks. (And only minutes from the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of my favorite childhood authors.)
If you’ve ever been curious about the day-to-day of Baker Creek, you’re in for a visual treat!
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company is a family-owned seed house that started in the bedroom of then-17-year-old Jeremiath “Jere” Gettle, who printed his first seed catalog (essentially a price list) in 1998 after realizing his love of rare seeds and their rapid disappearance from traditional catalogs.
The homespun business flourished (is it any coincidence this was right before Y2K?) and eventually took over the original Rippee farm in Mansfield, Missouri, thought to be the longest-lasting homestead in the state.
Baker Creek has since branched out to Petaluma, California (with its west coast headquarters at Petaluma Seed Bank, a Victorian-era former bank building) and Wethersfield, Connecticut (with its acquisition and restoration of Comstock, Ferre & Company, the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England).
But the heart of Baker Creek’s business remains in Mansfield, where the Gettle family and a team of growers, packers, sales and media mavens, and tech support specialists keep the company running smoothly.
There’s a lot going on in this idyllic landscape, though you’d never know it from first glance. As you roll up on the farm (dubbed Bakersville), you’re instantly transported to the days of yore — from the quaint wooden barns and buildings to the employees all dressed in petticoats and overalls. The Gettle family themselves (Jere, Emilee, and their daughters Sasha and Malia) look like the protagonists from Little House on the Prairie, though Jere is usually rocking a fabulously loud shirt. Everyone looks the part here, which gives a true sense of time and place while you’re visiting.
The pioneer village of Bakersville is the prime attraction, with the Baker Creek Seed Store standing where the original Rippee family garden once was. If you’re an avid seed collector, a stroll through this store will put you in your happy place.
A vegan restaurant, natural bakery, old-time mercantile, herbal apothecary, music barn, blacksmith shop, heritage hen house, and even a Western jail make up the rest of this historic town, which is fully open and free to the public.
It’s worth noting that the Asian-inspired restaurant (delicious, I might add — I enjoyed lunch there on a quiet afternoon post-festival) serves a set menu based on what’s growing in the garden, and your bill is based on the amount you feel like donating for your meal. You just deposit the cash in a wooden box on your way out. Very, very cool, considering there’s even table service with that charming Midwest hospitality.
Adjacent to Bakersville are the test gardens and seed warehouses, where the bulk of Baker Creek’s business takes place.
The crazy-awesome cabin? It was built by local Amish craftsmen and houses the company’s costume collection.
Every year, Jere and his team travel to far-flung places like Thailand, Myanmar, Morocco, and Italy, learning about the local food, immersing themselves in ancient cultures, and trading stories with tribesmen, farmers, chefs, and market vendors.
They bring all this knowledge (along with copious samples of seeds) back to the farm, where they grow and trial new varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers they may want to introduce to their catalog. While a fair amount of seeds is tested on their farm first, Baker Creek also relies on a network of small farmers to grow seeds for them. Many of their seeds are rarely found in the US, and some were on the verge of extinction until they were discovered on local farms or sourced from seed collectors from around the world.
Not every available seed is shown in the annual Baker Creek catalog; the company tends to rotate varieties based on their popularity with customers and the supply grown by their seed farmers. To date, Baker Creek carries around 1,800 varieties of untreated, open-pollinated heirloom seeds, the largest collection of heirloom seeds in the country.
That’s an impressive number of seeds, especially when you think of the few dozen you might find in your local garden center. And for some reason, I’d always imagined the people at Baker Creek carefully spooning out seeds and scooping them into envelopes one by one, filling each order manually the way pharmacists do.
As I came to find out, that was the way they did it up until recently!
Once orders started pouring in at a pace they couldn’t keep up by hand, Jere devised an automated system to help the warehouse sort, pick, and pack the seeds more efficiently.
A machine processes the seeds and portions them into preprinted packets, while a worker sweeps the sealed packets into labeled bins.
Elsewhere in a dimly lit area of the warehouse — the picking center of the operation — programmed projectors flash a light onto the appropriate seed bin. More workers walk up and down the aisle, pick the illuminated seed packets and drop them onto a conveyor belt. Barcode scanners keep track of inventory as the seed packets pass through to open boxes organized by shipment. Mailing labels are printed, orders are inspected, and packages are sorted into postal carts.
This entire system allows Baker Creek to fill upwards of a thousand orders a day! (Speaking of orders, Baker Creek also carries The CSA Cookbook in their catalog… so buy some seeds, and learn how to cook with your harvest!)
If you ever find yourself in this little slice of the Ozarks, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Bakersville. It’s truly a neat (and unique) experience that shows a company committed to their mission in every facet of life.
Thank you so much to Jere, Paul, Kathy, and the rest of the crew at Baker Creek for their enthusiastic support over the years!