Written by Lee Schneider
When I moved from Brooklyn to California I discovered dirt.
What I mean is that I realized dirt was good for more than wrecking a good pair of shoes in a New York City winter slushfest. You could grow things in dirt. Surprisingly, dirt, or more properly, a garden, was a place to spend valuable time with kids and spouses.
On the Westside of LA, back in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s, I became a backyard gardener. I ordered from a catalog called Baker Creek. Thanks to the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalogue and the local plant nursery, we had forests of tomatoes. We had Thai hot peppers that a pepper-fanatic friend consumed raw, hot off the plant. We even had corn one year. We had just one ear of corn about the size of a baby’s hand, but we boiled it, ate it, and it was good. The seeds I planted in that garden ranged from green globes of Nasturtium to tiny flecks that were instantly lost in the muddy yard. One year, Baker Creek sent us a Mystery Pack of seeds that carpeted the garden with wildflowers, a squash that might have been a pumpkin, and one forlorn cantaloupe. We ate that too.
Planting heirloom seeds — the kind of seeds you order from Baker Creek — seems like a quaint pastime. You picture baby food jars lined on a sunny kitchen windowsill, each one filled with a different kind of seed, or neighbors trading seeds over the backyard fence. The world of heirloom seeds is all that, and a lot more. Seeds carry culture and history. Civilizations live or starve depending on whether they have access to seeds. If the world were to end, rebooting it would begin with planting seeds.
As a backyard gardener, I discovered that heirloom seeds do something really weird. Plant them and they grow. Harvest the seeds and plant them again. They grow all over again. If you are an urbanist like I am, who first encounters most of his food in plastic packages, the idea of self-replicating food is something out of science fiction.
Here’s something else out of science fiction. Just before the year 2000, there was something called the Y2K Scare. People believed that their personal computers would freeze up and go black. The banking system would collapse as well as the power grid. Planes would crash. Balanced unsteadily upon a binary code of ones and zeroes, the world would stop when all the computers failed. It looked like the end for people, so people started saving seeds in case they needed to grow their own food.
Y2K didn’t happen. But the seed habit caught on for some. A new generation of backyard gardeners realized that growing your own food was good. Y2K was when Jere Gette’s business really took off. You can get to know his business from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Catalogue. The same one that I ordered my seeds from to plant in my tiny garden. He printed his first catalog when he was seventeen. When I discovered the catalog in LA he had already been at it a while. Now, more than two decades later, he offers about 2000 varieties of vegetables and herbs, the largest selection in the U.S.
Planting heirloom seeds — the kind of seeds you order from Baker Creek — seems like a quaint pastime. You picture baby food jars lined on a sunny kitchen windowsill, each one filled with a different kind of seed, or neighbors trading seeds over the backyard fence. The world of heirloom seeds is all that, and a lot more.
// Lee Schneider
In this episode of Future of Food, I interview Jere Gettle about seeds, which are, for the most part, small. But the ideas we cover are big.
I came to the interview prepared, having read Rob Dunn’s book Never Out of Season, which informed me that seeds are carriers of culture and history and that there is an end-of-the-world seed vault carved into the side of a mountain. It is in Norway. It’s called the Svalbard vault and it can store 2.25 billion seeds. The image below is a screen snap of a spreadsheet I downloaded showing some of the varieties of rice in the vault. It should serve to convince you that they have a lot.
If ever civilization needs a reboot, the vault will have the seeds we need. The vault is designed to withstand nuclear war. Yet its keepers had a scare recently when the Permafrost melted around the fault — an event attributed to climate change — and threatened to flood it. Luckily for civilization, no seeds were damaged, but now we can add the threat of climate catastrophe to the growing list of threats in view that challenge the integrity of our food supply.
Jere’s customers are mostly home gardeners, and they dig in the dirt everywhere from downtown New York City to Tokyo to Dallas. Amish farmers out in the country where he lives in Missouri like to order seeds from him and see what comes up. If you’re a beginner, he recommends trying beets. Really, though, you can try anything. “People are pretty successful on almost any crop as long as they don’t go too far outside their climate zone,” he said. That is the lesson I learned from my ear of corn that only achieved the size of a baby’s hand. Still, we are it and it was good.
Hit play to listen to my conversation with Jere.
Click on the play buttons on the left to hear that part of the conversation.
Lee: It’s the Future of Food. I’m Lee Schneider. It started with the Y2K scare. Back in 1999, computers were designed with just two spaces for numbers in the date field rather than four. When 1999 was about to roll over to 2000, everybody freaked out. Machines would think the date was 00 and experts believed that bank computers would miscalculate interest on your money. The power grid would be misprogrammed, sparking tech disaster. Your home computer would blink to black and die. People started buying seeds. They wanted to plant their own gardens in case the world ended. The world didn’t end, but the seeds caught on. It was the start of Jere Gettle’s business, which thrives today. At age 17, Jere printed his first Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. Now, his company offers about 2,000 varieties of vegetables and herbs, the largest selection in the U.S. Jere, welcome to the podcast.
Jere: Good to be here, I sure appreciate it.
Lee: Why the passion for seeds from such an early age?
Jere: Well, I guess I grew up with parents and grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody, when I was small in the Boise Valley, was pretty much gardening growing up, so, I think it just kinda came naturally. I remember gardening with both my Hispanic grandmother and then my grandmother who is more of a German and a Danish background. So it’s a, you know, just kinda grew in my blood I guess. It kinda grew up with me, gardening and seed saving just kinda sprang out of gardening.
Lee: Why are heirloom seeds important? Particularly heirloom seeds and not just any seeds?
Jere: Well, heirloom seeds are fascinating and the term heirloom is, you know, kind of generic. It’s similar to antique or vintage. They have different meanings to different people, but an heirloom is a seed that’s passed down from generation to generation. But basically what an heirloom seed is, in most broad terms, is a seed that can be saved and passed down so it cannot be a like a hybrid seed. It has to be something that can be saved and passed down.
The unique thing about these seeds is they not only preserve the genetics, they also tell the stories of previous generations. Maybe stories that date back to Thomas Jefferson, maybe ones that date back to your great grandmother or the immigrants that came here from Russia or Japan or wherever your family might have come from or other families. So, they tell stories and make connections as well as preserve all these beautiful genetics from so many different places and keep alive history. Basically, they keep alive history.
Lee: The climate crisis made the decade of 2000 to 2009 the warmest on record at the time. Financial markets also had their own meltdown. The recession of 2008, 2009 pushed people out of their jobs. They had time on their hands. Some started to garden and discovered that they liked it. Growing your own food was a good thing. So let’s talk about your customers a little bit. Why do you think your customers are attracted to heirloom seeds and what you offer?
Jere: Number one, because they love the flavor and the diversity. You know, they love to be able to try watermelons that have so many different colors and with all the different colors, it brings different flavor elements, you know. Orange has different flavor compounds than red and, you know, white watermelons have a different taste again. And the same with the tomatoes. Each color variation also generally brings about its own unique flavors. And then also, they love the stories, they love to connect with their past, they love seeds that can be traded and shared and exchanged. And, you know, if somebody wants to trade the seeds with their neighbor over the back fence, they can do that, have an ability to, you know, share and trade and have something from the past.
Heirloom seeds are like public domain software. They are the seeds of the people.
// Jere Gettle
Lee: Saving seeds might seem like a quaint pastime, but seeds carry culture and history. Civilizations live or starve depending on whether they have access to seeds. If our world ends because of climate catastrophe or war, we will need to start again literally from seed. The Kingdom of Norway has spent $9 million to dig a hardened and secure seed vault into the side of a mountain. This vault, called the Svalbard Vault, has the capacity to store 2.25 billion seeds. If civilization needs a reboot, the seeds will be there.
Jere Gettle has compared heirloom seeds to public domain software. They are, he says, the seeds of the people in that vault, and in small, backyard gardens everywhere. You can replant these seeds and they will grow again, and you can give these seeds to someone else and they can grow them. In the age of genetically modified plants and crops, why is that remarkable?
Jere: Well, there’s multiple things that make it remarkable, but, it’s just, you know, a miracle to watch, you know, something that maybe the Romans grew that can be grown still today. And in many cases, you can look back at old artwork and it might be the same squash or melon that’s, you know, in a 300-year-old Japanese print or that was, you know, documented in a cave or wherever it might have came from. These old varieties are connecting us to our ancestors, connecting us to, you know, other generations and other cultures. And I think that’s…The thing that I think that I find more exciting about heirlooms than anything else is their connection to our ancestors, but also other cultures, you know. We can literally connect our customers who wanna grow varieties for making a Thai dish, they can actually get the real varieties from Thailand, versus just substituting varieties into dishes, as well as connecting with varieties from your family or something my grandmother used to grow, my great-grandmother used to grow, I can actually grow those same things today.
There are very few other ways people can connect with their heritage as much as with gardening. Most things, besides maybe animals and a few other, you know, maybe like cooking or recipes, but other than that, there’s really no living ways to connect with your past, like in gardening.
Lee: Yeah, that’s so true. It gets back to the idea of seeds as transmitters of culture.
Jere: Seeds are really, you know, for very long, it’s been like currency or, you know, basically before the last generation or your last couple generations, you know, if you didn’t save your seed in many parts of the planet, and even today, if you don’t save your seeds in many of the developing countries, you’re still going to go hungry in many places.
If you don’t save your seeds in many of the developing countries, you’re still going to go hungry in many places.
// Jere Gettle
Lee: Genetically modified seeds…the “GM” in GMO…are created to be resistant to disease and pests. If a company like Monsanto makes a GM seed, it will make that seed resistant to the Monsanto pesticide, Roundup. Farmers are told they can use Roundup with the GM seeds in a kind of closed loop system, but nature is not a closed loop. Non-GMO crops are becoming resistant to Roundup and there are new diseases and pests cropping up.
Jere: If a new strain of disease pops up or a new insect pops up and all of a sudden, the variety that you’re growing doesn’t have resistance to this strain of a disease, what commercial breeders still rely on is they have to go back to these foundation seeds. They’re still going back to the traditional varieties for breeding.
The problem is as we lose more and more of these traditional varieties, it reduces the gene pool for breeders to work with. And that’s why it’s so important for, you know, home gardeners and farmers, everybody, to conserve these old varieties because even if you’re developing modern hybrids, you still have to start with some base stock, you still have to have the genes of these old insect-resistant varieties or these old heat-tolerant varieties to develop the modern varieties. You know, the corn that we have today, much of it’s based off of the old Reid’s Yellow Dent and without Reid’s Yellow Dent, we would not even have the modern hybrid corn that’s on the market today. So, I mean, without these foundational building blocks, as we lose them, we also lose the security of our food supply, you know, the risk of totally losing an entire crop.
Bananas, for example, most of the bananas on the planet for commercial use are Cavendish varieties, which is one of the more disease-prone varieties, and many plantations are suffering and struggling, and some people think that the whole variety could eventually be basically lost to commercial production. And a lot of it it’s because people have selected just, they see one variety for our dinner tables. And the more diversity we can increase into our food supply, and the more local we can make our food supply, that also increases the diversity simply by keeping things local and growing different varieties in different places.
Lee: Right. It’s such a strange thing and Rob Dunn wrote about this so compellingly in Never Out of Season, that we go into the supermarket and there’s really only one variety of bananas, and they’re all related to each other genetically, which is kind of strange to think about. And it might be similar with certain tomatoes and other things like that. And there’s a real danger, as you’re saying, to the food supply and the danger if it’s addressed from the seed perspective, it seems to be a smart way. If it’s addressed from, “Oh, we need more pesticides,” to this latest problem that’s come up, it seems to create a vicious cycle.
Jere: The pesticides would be only, you know, it’s basically a temporary patch. And as a temporary patch, it works well in the short term. But, you know, long-term, generally, there’s flaws that start to appear.
Lee: And what are some of those flaws? Is it just that we start going down this rabbit hole of pest, pesticide, new pest, new pesticide, new GM, new pesticide? It’s I think what people may not be thinking about. Certainly, I learned this from reading Rob Dunn’s book, is that this is not standing still. There’s going to be new pests and there’s going to be new diseases. There’s gonna be some new bug, there’s gonna be some new something. And the way to address it historically has been with seed diversity and in modern times, the way to address it is with some new spray, which is, as you’re saying, a short-term patch.
Jere: And that’s the biggest challenge with, you know, GM crops that are developed for Roundup resistance. After a while, you know, the Roundup…the weeds that were getting killed by the Roundup are eventually, some of them are deciding, “Well, we can figure out how to live with the Roundup and get by with the Roundup.”
So then they got…then they have to figure out a new way to, you know, develop something stronger, something different to keep up with the progress of the weeds or the pest. That’s why I think, you know, diversity is probably…it might not be an immediate fix, but it’s a long-term, you know, a long-term fix having diversity because even if you lose, say, the entire corn crop, if you’re still growing oats and barley and all these other crops all over the country, even if your entire current corn crop would go away, you would still be okay. So it’s not just diversity among each individual species, but even among the species. So many of the species like, who grows rutabaga and turnips anymore? It’s like, totally, these used to be staple food crops and now people hardly even eat them, if at all.
Lee: Right. First of all, we probably wouldn’t recognize a rutabaga if we ran into one on the street, then alone in the market because they’re really hard to find. Certain of these vegetables that probably were common a while ago are relegated to some bin and I don’t even know what it is.
Jere: And our grandparents, great grandparents, generational, many vegetables were quite common. For example, if you looked at cauliflowers, I looked at a catalog from around 1880 and 1890, and there was like 45 different varieties of cauliflower alone. And you can open up a seed catalog today and there might be, you know, two varieties of cauliflower. I mean, that shows how the, you know, in general this…The amount of diversity has gone down as far as what’s available, especially in some of these crops that aren’t considered, you know, like common gardener, common food crops, like turnips and rutabagas, you know, the amount of diversity in these crops has gone down, and the amount of seed, in general, being planted has went down.
People are eating more things like, you know, fortunately it’s starting to change, but over the last, you know, 30, 40 years, people just started eating more and more things, like, iceberg lettuce. White potatoes. Just more and more starchy and bland, non-nutritious foods in general.
I know in the last few years, people have started considering, you know, the nutrition in their food and also the diversity again, and people are interested. It’s just that taking a little while I think to get enough people growing and eating some of these crops to really make it so they’re actually a potential to help feed the population, because in many cases, they’re still just specialty crops.
Lee: Who is your customer and how has that customer type changed over the years?
Jere: It’s a very diverse group. We still have some people that are, you know, buying seeds to preserve, to put away in case something bad happens, but that’s just a small percentage. Our general customer now is mostly home gardeners, you know, medium to large gardeners, small gardeners. People everywhere from, you know, downtown New York City to, you know, Tokyo to Dallas to, you know, out in the country, out here, Amish farmers that love to grow heirloom varieties. A lot of the people that order from us are very dedicated gardeners and we also have a lot of very young gardeners compared to your average, older mail order company. And that’s probably also because we’re a younger company.
Lee: I would definitely fit your customer type because I’m from New York, but I moved out here to California a while ago and I somehow found your catalog. And I had…When I showed up in California, we rented a house and I had a little piece of dirt that was probably, I’m picturing in my mind, maybe 20 feet by 5 feet, you know. But it was dirt and it was in pretty good shape and hadn’t been, you know, messed up by the previous tenant, and I planted tomatoes. We had a forest of tomatoes and I’ve totally fit that profile of this sort of at the moment, you know, dabbling, but then got serious, even had corn one year. So it was a pretty good deal.
Jere: That’s really neat, that’s really fun.
My number one recommended seed would be beet seed because beets produce easily in almost any type of climate and they produce a tuber and green leaves. They’re super easy to grow.
// Jere Gettle
Lee: What kind of seeds do you recommend to people just getting started with this?
Jere: Depends on kinda where people are at, but in general, probably my number one recommended seed would be beet seed. Because beets produce easily in almost any type of climate and they produce, you know, a tuber and green leaves, and they’re super easy to grow. People are pretty successful on almost any crop as long as they don’t go too far outside their, you know, climate zones. But in most of the country, almost anything in the catalog can be produced.
Lee: I know this is like asking who’s your favorite child, but it will be my last question: What’s one of your favorite seeds?
Jere: Well, that’s again a hard question as far as my favorite seed. But this year, it’s actually…our favorite this year was the Atomic Grape tomato, which is actually a new variety. It’s actually not an heirloom. It was developed from heirloom varieties by a friend who is basically producing new varieties that’ll be heirlooms for the future, but it has tremendous taste. That was one of my favorites this year, but overall there’s several as far as long-term favorites.
The Orangeglo watermelon, though, is hard to beat. That’s a variety that’s about 50 or so years old, 50, 60 years old, and it just has a tremendous deep orange color and a wonderful, sweet, fruity, deeper flavor than most watermelons. Most watermelons have kind of the same flavor profile but have much more almost citrusy, and it’s so beautiful as well. And also it’s starting to become really rare. It’s not very common anymore.
Lee: That sounds wonderful. Next time I get myself a little bit of dirt, I’ll try that.
Jere: They’re fantastic.
Lee: Jere, thanks so much for joining me today on the podcast.
Jere: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Lee: This has been the Future of Food. Go to futurefood.fm and you’ll find transcripts of all shows, articles that build on what we talk about in the shows, and you can subscribe to the mailing list and never miss a podcast. That’s futurefood.fm. I’m Lee Schneider.