I’ve wanted to visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company for a long time. For at least ten years I’ve received their catalogs and watched Jere Gettle’s business and family grow. Their festivals have always looked like so much fun, yet I never found the time to make the 2 1/2 hour trip.
My contact there, Kathy McFarland, has been supportive of my blog. When I approached her for a donation for my recent anniversary celebration, I offered to visit and write about them in return, purposely making that commitment so I would finally get to go.
My visit just happened to be on June 21st, the first day of summer. Somehow that seemed appropriate, although I didn’t plan it that way. I would love to visit again during one of their special events, but for this visit I was happy to go when I would get to meet some of the people who would otherwise be too busy. It was a beautiful day and an easy drive. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company is located in Mansfield, Missouri, about an hour east of Springfield, on the historic Rippee land grant homestead near the Gasconade River.
When I arrived I wasn’t sure where to go, so I went into the General Store. The employee there seemed to be expecting me and asked if I was there to see Kathy. That was nice because immediately I felt welcomed and not so lost. While I waited for Kathy, I looked around the charming store. There were racks and racks of seeds, which I had expected to see, but also other products for sale such as gardening books, cooking supplies, decorative items, and even fabrics and sewing patterns. It had the authentic feel of a general store.
I immediately recognized Debbie Gettle’s paintings. Jere’s mother is a talented artist, and many of them had served as beautiful catalog covers in years past. Baker Creek’s catalogs really stand apart from most because of their personality – the artwork, the quotes and trivia, and the photos of the Gettles (especially of their darling daughters, Sasha and Malia) and the people that actually work there and are part of the Baker Creek family, all make them a joy to read, especially during the bleak winter months.
Kathy arrived and it was so nice to meet her in person as she was very warm and friendly. She took me to her office where she told me about the history of the company.
Passion Takes Root
Jere Gettle started his first garden when he was three years old, and learned to read by reading seed packets. As a young child he realized that some varieties of seeds were disappearing from the catalogs and that sprouted his interest in saving seeds. At that time, Jere’s family lived in the northwest, but when Jere was about twelve, his family purchased the land grant homestead in Mansfield, Missouri, where his company is now located. (Emilee later told me that the Gettles moved to Missouri for the climate and the less-constrictive homeschool laws.) His seed collection gradually grew, and soon after moving to Missouri, in his early teens, Jere started selling his seeds at swap meets.
When he was seventeen, Jere made his first seed list, naming it after nearby Baker Creek. That first year he made 250 copies of his catalog, and nearly twenty years later in 2017 they made 750,000! Kathy said that the local banker still tells the story of how Jere walked into the bank carrying a metal bucket full of money to open his first account.
“Bakersville,” the pioneer village, was started in the year 2000 because Jere wanted to host a gathering to talk about seeds. That was the beginning of their festivals which are now held on the first Sunday of the month, March through October, and the village grew up around them. The annual May “Planting Festival,” is the biggest event and attracts 10,000 visitors.
The village consists of many differently-themed buildings and looks like Little House on the Prairie could have been filmed there. During my visit the village was quiet, but during festivals it comes to life with live demonstrations and authentic costumes.
About four years ago, on a trip to Italy, Jere fell in love with their courtyards. When he returned home he designed a similar garden. The fountain was designed by a local potter and then was built by an Amish crew.
Jere also has an interest in heritage breeds of poultry, so there are cages with all sorts of birds throughout the grounds.
As if all of the events at their home office in Mansfield, Missouri, weren’t enough, Baker Creek has branched out and also has events in California. The Seed Bank is housed in an old bank building in Petaluma, an old-gold mining town. At this location they offer special events such as lectures, workshops, and a book club – all gardening related, of course. The 7th annual National Heirloom Exposition will take place in Santa Rosa, California, September 5-7, 2017. The Exposition brings together people who are passionate about pure food and heirloom seeds from all over the world. They have hundreds of speakers and vendors, plus demonstrations. There are even special activities for children. You can learn more about these events by following their links.
Baker Creek Restaurant
I had read about the Baker Creek Restaurant and was excited to experience it. As we walked in, I met Dave Kaiser, whom I immediately recognized from their catalogs. I got to spend quite a bit of time with him, so more about him shortly. The restaurant carried out the pioneer feel with rustic furniture, wooden floors and walls. Each table was adorned with fresh cut flowers.
Their chef, Loghan Call, prepares vegan meals using the bounty of the garden, plus locally-grown produce, as much as possible. Their menu is “ever-changing,” reflecting what’s in season. It’s a donation-based restaurant. They have a suggested donation of $5-10 per person, but you pay what you’re able when you leave the restaurant by leaving it in a donation box.
When you walk in, you have a choice of two beverages which also vary. On my visit I had a choice between homemade lemonade, and lemongrass-blueberry infused water. I chose the pretty pink lemonade.
For lunch, I tried the “Baker Creek Garden Salad with Blueberry, Thyme Dressing,” and “Roasted Tomato and Black Lentil Polenta with Cauliflower Rice and Marinated Zucchini.” I loved the uniqueness and creativity of the menu items, and I felt like I had really eaten a healthy meal. It sure can’t get any fresher! It even included a small scoop of ice cream. That day’s choices were “Thyme,” or “Chocolate Marble.” I chose the Chocolate Marble, but Kathy offered me a sample of her Thyme and both were very good. Their ice creams are also vegan, made with coconut milk.
When Kathy and I finished eating, Dave came and sat with us to visit. Dave has known Jere pretty much since his family moved to the area when he was about 12. Dave’s son, Andrew, was a close friend of Jere’s and helped him in the early days of his budding business. Dave was able to tell me all sorts of stories and he gave me a tour of his own later in the afternoon. But at this point, Emilee came to visit with me so both Kathy and Dave excused themselves.
The First Lady of Bakersville
Both Jere and Emilee are very busy, so I was appreciative of Emilee taking time to sit down with me. She’s such a pretty and charming young lady, and very easy to talk to. Another reason I’ve been a loyal customer of Baker Creek was the homeschooling connection. Both Jere and Emilee were homeschooled, and they are now homeschooling their own children. Since I like writing about both gardening and homeschooling, their family fits both of those interests.
I don’t remember exactly when I started getting their catalogs, but I feel like it was a year or two before Jere and Emilee married because I remember her suddenly appearing in the catalog. Emilee told me the story of how they met: She lived in central Missouri and was an only child. She loved writing and had posted in a magazine, seeking a penpal. She said she had over ninety responses, so she started an online magazine for homeschooled girls. After awhile she decided to also write for boys. She had become good friends with a penpal from Tennessee whose mother had recommended the Baker Creek catalog to her. Emilee thought it would be interesting to interview Jere for her magazine, that his story might be of interest to young men. She started communicating with Jere in January, they met in March for the interview, and they were married in August. Emilee commented that she felt like she saw God’s hand in the events that led to them meeting.
I asked Emilee if she gardened before she met Jere. She said that while growing up, her family had gardened and that she also had a garden of her own. Because of it she also learned to love canning. Where Jere enjoys the seed and sowing part, she really prefers the harvesting and preserving part.
Emilee is very creative and is a good compliment to Jere. She has used her writing talent to co-author books, and she served as the Editor-in-Chief of “Heirloom Garden Magazine” which was recently sold.
I was curious about how homeschooling affected Jere, Emilee, their family and their business. Emilee said that she felt like homeschooling helps kids find their voice. When she was young she went to public school and was shy, but when her parents started homeschooling her, she became more confident.
Emilee characterized Jere’s education as “unschooling” because he was allowed to focus on his interests. Without that, she said that the business would not have happened, noting that even at a very young age, Jere was a member of Seed Savers.
Homeschooled children can learn so much within entrepreneurial families, so I asked Emilee if their daughters would be involved in the business as they grew up. She replied that they already were, that even at 3 years of age, Malia was helping to fill orders by putting the seed packets and receipts in the envelope. Sasha, who is 9, runs her own lemonade stand during special events. The Gettles are teaching their daughters to give back by allowing them to choose an organization to donate up to half of their earnings to. Sasha recently donated about $1000 to earthquake victims in Nepal. Sasha also enjoys cooking and helps her mother prepare their evening meals in the restaurant’s commercial kitchen. “Both are excellent managers…they both tell us what to do,” she laughed. Emilee added that through the family business, both girls are learning people skills, how to treat people. “Lots of kids are so plugged in that they don’t know how to interact,” she said.
Emilee said that she tells her daughters, “You can start really small, like a seed, and grow as big as you want…with a little fertilizer.” Then laughing, she added, “Organic, of course!” She explained what she meant by “fertilizer” by saying that they have made connections with their competitors – that they didn’t grow by stepping on people, but by working with them. “We don’t really gain anything by being islands. Organic growers accomplish more by joining forces.”
The Gettles’ business requires extensive traveling. They’ve been to many different countries and usually stay for a month at a time. Jere always takes his family with him, so their daughters are growing up being exposed to a range of different cultures and languages. Some of the countries Emilee named that they had recently visited were Mexico, Thailand, and Abu Dhabi. Their next trip will be this fall to China where they plan to adopt two children.
When I was eating lunch in the restaurant, I noticed the Gettles eating lunch together as a family on the other side. Most families in our culture today are dispersed by their different job and school schedules. One of the biggest blessings of homeschooling is the ability of the family unit to spend so much more time together, resulting in stronger bonds, and the Gettle family is definitely taking advantage of that.
Besides contributing to Baker Creek Seed Company and homeschooling their daughters, Emilee has other pursuits. She is starting a new business in which she’ll sell children’s clothing and toys made with natural materials. Her goal is to be fair trade and organic. She still has not settled on the name, but hopes to launch her new business soon. You can follow her on Facebook under “Heirloom Girl.” She also recently completed her second Bachelor’s degree, so now she has two: one in Christian Education, and one in Maternal Health. She’s also a Certified Lactation Consultant. She’s a very busy lady!
Behind the Scenes Tour
When I finished visiting with Emilee I went outside to look around more and take pictures. I soon bumped into Dave Kaiser and he offered to show me around the facilities. As we walked to the warehouse, he pointed out the little cabin where he lived. Although it looks old and rickety, it’s just designed to look that way. It’s actually fairly new.
As you might guess, there are many different gardens on the premises. There is one large garden that is solely for the restaurant. The others are “trial” gardens and have three purposes: 1) to test new seeds, 2) to grow seeds to give to contractors, and 3) for photographs.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company contracts with over 200 small farmers all over the world to produce most of their seeds. The remaining seeds are purchased from seed houses, but the Gettles are picky, buying only non-GMO stock.
Growing Like a Weed
January through March is Baker Creek’s busy season. At one time they hand-typed the forms, picked and packed the seeds by hand, and could fill about 1000 orders a day. Currently, they have an automated system that allows them to fill 3000 orders per day.
Inside the current warehouse, Dave introduced me to some of the employees and described the machinery and how it works. I was surprised at how high-tech it was. I got to see one of the machines in action that automatically fills seed packets and seals them.
Then he showed me the new warehouse and the new system which will triple the daily number of orders they’re able to fill. When it’s completed they’ll be able to handle about 9000 orders a day. Don’t let Bakersville’s pioneer village fool you. Behind that facade, the company is actually high-tech.
Jere has a private greenhouse where he grows tropical plants. Dave let me sample a Tamarillo, a fruit that he says people either love or hate. I thought it had a unique flavor that would take some getting used to.
In a second, larger greenhouse there were huge banana trees, citrus trees, and plants that were being tested. While passing through I happened to see Malia and took this cute picture of her.
This greenhouse wasn’t big enough for the tall banana trees that were scraping the ceiling. Dave showed me the beginning of a huge new geodesic greenhouse that was being built where that wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Fresh from Peru
During the tour, we entered an office where Dave showed me a basket of corn and beans that were recently procured from Peru. It was really interesting to see the different sizes and colors of corn and beans. They were bagged and waiting to go through the process of cataloging and testing.
From there, Dave showed me the “seed bank” where they store small quantities of seeds for safekeeping. The dark and chilly, concrete-encased room also serves as the company’s storm shelter.
We ended up back at the General Store where Dave pointed out the very first Baker Creek Seed Company display that Jere built. It was very nice for Dave to spend that time with me, giving me his personal tour.
I had a wonderful visit to Bakersville and I hope you enjoyed reading about it. I’ve included links to make it easy to visit their website to request a catalog or order some seeds. I can definitely recommend a visit to Mansfield. Not only can you visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, but the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder is also located there. Not too far away is Branson, Missouri, another nice place for family vacations.