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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.

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"He's made a huge splash in circles around the country," said Jeff Mall, chef/owner of Zin restaurant in Healdsburg. "I totally respect what he's done."

Tall and gangly, with deep-set dimples and a penchant for wearing Western shirts and overalls, Gettle's personal style straddles the line between retro and hip — American Gothic, adapted for the millennials.

"What I like about him is that he appreciates an old-fashioned kind of style," said Mall, who shares an interest in the past. "He definitely represents something that's being lost."

Gettle also dabbles in publishing, an outgrowth of his early obsession with gardening magazines. His wife, Emilee, edits the company's quarterly magazine, The Heirloom Gardener.

Gettle himself spent the last few months writing his first book, a gardening guide due out in October from Hyperion. The guide is aimed at inexperienced gardeners, from the Facebook generation to retired folks.

"At the store, we always get people who ask, &‘Do you have a book that covers everything?'" he said. "I wanted a book that would talk about seed saving, composting, window boxes — all of it."

The couple and their 3-year-old daughter, Sasha, are living in Petaluma this winter to take advantage of the year-round gardening. Eventually, they hope to build a demonstration farm and live there for six months each year.

"Petaluma is the perfect American town," Gettle said. "We like the historic architecture, the interesting places to eat and visit, and all the farms."

A child of the West, Gettle was raised in the wide open spaces of Oregon and Montana. His family settled in Mansfield, Missouri when he was 13.

"My parents and grandparents all tinkered with farming and market gardens," he said. "In Oregon, we grew 100 different varieties (of fruit and vegetables)."

When he turned 10, his aunt sent him an issue of Sunset magazine that had an article on heirloom peppers, sparking his interest in keeping these traditional garden varieties alive.

While he doesn't regard himself as political, Gettle has joined forces with food activists such as Michael Pollan in the fight against pesticides and GMOs.

"We're trying to keep farming alive," he said. "Whether our food is safe or not should not be a political issue."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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