Jeremiath "Jere" Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, is riding high on the home gardening movement. But the passionate preservationist is the last one to toot his own horn.
The way he sees it, his budding career as a seed salesman is simply a boyhood hobby that, like Jack's magical beanstalk, grew way beyond his wildest dreams.
"When I was 3 or 4 years old, and the ground was all frozen in the winter, I loved to look at Henry Field's or Gurney's seed catalogs," he said while sipping orange juice in a Petaluma cafe. "They had a lot of colorful, painted pictures, and the ears of corn were bigger than life."
By the time he was 17, Gettle had created his own, 12-page price list for seeds that he mailed out to the folks living near his family's 176-acre ranch in southern Missouri.
"For the first two years, I was selling seeds out of my bedroom," he said. "In 1999, the seed company took off with Y2K ... so we started working on a small store."
Now 31, Gettle presides over a thriving, 14-year-old business that has grown from its headquarters in Missouri's Ozark hills to include an historic seed company in Wethersfield, Conn., and a homespun retail outlet in a 1920s-era bank in Petaluma.
At Petaluma's Seed Bank, Gettle and his staff sell 1,400 varieties of heirloom seeds, sourced from 70 countries, while serving as a community hub for those who want to embrace the locavore lifestyle.
"We try to have classes on a weekly basis that are free," said Paul Wallace, general manager of the Seed Bank. "We want there to be no boundaries for people to get into gardening and to eat healthier."
Gettle plans to launch a new harvest festival this fall in the North Bay. Farmers, gardeners and food experts from across the country will gather in Santa Rosa September 13-15 for the first-ever National Heirloom Exposition at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
"It's going to be the biggest exhibit of produce ever," he said. "They used to have these big expositions during the 1800s up until 1920s, but these days, the state fairs have become more about the rides."
A visionary ahead of his time, Gettle has devoted himself to saving those old-time varieties, such as Delikatesse cucumbers from Germany, Old Time Tennessee melons and Argentine Primitive pumpkins. Along with building a Noah's ark for diversity, he's brought good, honest flavor back to the table.
"It used to be that every area had its own regional specialties, like the Crane Melon. ... Then everything started looking the same," he said. "But now there's a backlash, and people want that really good tomato."
Gettle takes advantage of modern technology to save the old-time produce, hosting a website (rareseeds.com) and gardening forum (idigmygarden.com) that welcomes 2,000 users a day.
"The Internet now sustains most of the seed industry," he said. "About 50 to 55 percent of people order online, and we're at well over 60 percent."
During the recent economic downturn, Gettle watched his homegrown seed business boom, with sales doubling in 2008 and 2009.
"When you're in a Depression, and the good jobs are gone," he asked, "what else is there to do but grow food?"
Gettle boasts a wholesome demeanor that harkons back to an earlier, innocent time. Stories about the young entrepreneur have popped up everywhere, from rural Missouri magazine to New York.