Non-GMO seed bank sprouts in California

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company’s Seed Bank revives a past tradition and promotes non-GMO production

Driving through downtown Petaluma, California, one sees many shops and restaurants like those seen in other small American cities. But here, one stately, gray stone building stands out. It looks like a classic American bank from a bygone era. In fact, “Sonoma National Bank” is engraved along the top. But this bank doesn’t hold money; it holds rare heirloom vegetable seeds. “Seed Bank” is painted on the large window above the main entrance, and another window sign advertises “Pure, Non-GMO Seed and Sundries.”

Lifelong passion for seeds
This unique California business is the brainchild of a 29-year old Missouri entrepreneur and seed lover, Jeremiah Gettle.

Gettle is founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, based in Mansfield, Missouri, and one of the world’s leading suppliers of heirloom seeds, offering more than 1400 varieties of vegetable, flower, and herb seeds.

Gettle has had a lifelong passion for seeds. “I was always interested in collecting seeds,” he says.

Gettle was particularly interested in rare heirloom varieties, seeds passed down from generation to generation. “Heirloom varieties have a lot of history and genetics you can’t find in modern seeds,” he says. “The more genetic diversity you have when growing a crop the more likely it will resist disease and pests. Studies have also shown that older varieties are more nutritious.”

Gettle started planting heirloom seeds, such as lemon cucumbers and scallop squash, when he was just four years old. At 16, he joined Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa-based organization dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. In 1998, at age 17, Gettle started selling seeds as a hobby. Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company was born.

Since then, Gettle’s hobby has grown into a thriving business, offering rare seed varieties in its annual catalog to home gardeners and small-scale farmers. Baker Creek operates a seed store in Mansfield, and grows and tests seed varieties on its 176 acres of land. Forty to 100 seasonal employees now help Gettle, whose enthusiasm for rare seeds remains the same. “I still consider this a hobby, but now I can do it without getting a day job,” he says.

Seed bank
In analyzing his seed sales, Gettle noticed that over 50% of sales from California were coming from northern counties, particularly Sonoma, Marin, Napa, and Mendocino. Based on this, he decided to establish a seed store in the San Francisco Bay area to better serve those customers. He found the bank building in Petaluma.

The building was constructed in 1927 but the bank it housed went bankrupt after the stock market crash of 1929. It later housed Bank of America, a real estate business, a Persian rug store, and an antique shop. The building figured prominently in the movie American Graffiti.

Gettle initially thought the building was too big at 10,000 square feet, but then decided to lease it in June 2009. “I ended up loving it and tried to figure out how to use the space,” he says.

The response has been enthusiastic from locals and customers, says seed bank manager Paul Wallace. “It’s been truly amazing. People are intrigued by the concept of a seed bank,” he says.

A native of Ireland, Wallace has extensive retail experience but sees the Seed Bank as much more than a retail store. “In a time of concerns over food content and availability during economic crises, we can help alleviate those concerns by providing support to grow the very best garden possible,” he says.

Customers have traveled from as far as Orange County in southern California to visit the Seed Bank. “It’s amazing the lengths people travel to come here,” Wallace says.

In addition to its non-GMO seed, the Seed Bank sells quality garden tools from British manufacturer Clarington Forge, books, and locally produced items, such as honey, jams, olive oil, spices, and soaps.

The Seed Bank also offers classes on planting vegetables and hosts guest speakers. Michael Pollan, noted author of best-selling books including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, spoke to a sell-out crowd in February.

Revival of seed store tradition
The Seed Bank is very timely, says Wallace. “There is a convergence of several things that make this type of venture possible. In the present economy, people are conscious of grocery dollars, and they can save money by growing their own vegetables. They are also conscious of the importance of non-GMO food,” he says.

Seed banks have been used for many years to preserve seed varieties. The most famous seed bank is the Svalbard International Seed Vault, built inside a mountain on the frozen Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.

Baker Creek’s Seed Bank preserves rare seed varieties and revives a past tradition—the local seed store. “In the 1940s and 1950s, every city with more than 100,000 people had a seed store. Now most of them are gone, with people buying by mail order or from big retailers like Home Depot,” Gettle says.

The vegetable seed business is one bright spot in the current bleak economy. Seed catalog companies such as Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company are thriving. The company’s seed sales have doubled in each of the past two years and may double again in 2010, says Gettle. More people are planting gardens as a way to control their own food security and save money. “We’re seeing a huge increase in new gardeners, especially young people in the 18-to-34 age group,” Gettle says.

Non-GMO commitment
The large window sign advertising “Pure, Non-GMO Seed” boldly displays Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company’s commitment to non-GMO production. Genetically modified organisms pose a major threat, Gettle says. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to keep varieties from being GMO contaminated.”

Corn seed is especially threatened; Baker Creek has lost 50% of its corn varieties because they’ve tested positive for GMOs. Some Missouri farmers who grow corn for Baker Creek have had their crop contaminated even though they are in areas where no GM corn is grown. “We figure pollen must travel long distances in the wind,” Gettle says.

Baker Creek’s website expresses its commitment to non-GMO production: “It is our goal to educate everyone about a better, safer food supply and fight gene-altered Frankenfood and the companies that support it.”

(copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, January 2010)