Most people travel the world in their twenties to find themselves. Jeremiath "Jere" Gettle, now 30, went to southeast Asia and Central America sleuthing for seeds. "My friends and I would buy fruit at the markets," he says. "We'd open it right there or take it back to the hotel to get out the seeds."
He's had this seed obsession since he was in his early teens, collecting different kinds from catalogs and traders. In 1998, at age 17, he printed his first Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. The timing was good: The heirloom-seed trend was just taking off. His Missouri-based company built a following, largely by word of mouth, and people from around the world now send him small envelopes; for example, he's been receiving seeds from an Iraqi man who is concerned that many old varieties have been lost since the US invasion. Sometimes, the seeds come with a detailed description of the variety, but more often, there are just a few words on a scrap of paper"Melon, has rich sweetness" or "Grandmother's favorite bean." Jere tests them in his garden, and if the seeds are worth savingif they have an interesting history, are easy to grow and produce something especially delicioushe'll grow enough to sell. His Baker Creek catalog and its website, rareseeds.com, offer more than 1,300 different varieties of seeds from more than 70 different countries.
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Seed exchanges are nothing new. "George Washington used to trade seeds with people from China," Jere says. "Obviously, it was harder to communicate back then, but it's a very old practice." Fueled by vegetable-worshipping chefs and the growing DIY food movement, Jere and his wife, Emilee, have expanded their business well beyond their pocket of Missouri. Two years ago, they opened a store in an old bank in Petaluma, California, in part because they wanted an excuse to get out of Missouri in the winter. At the same time, they received a letter from the owners of the Connecticut-based Comstock, Ferre & Co., the oldest continually operating seed catalog in New England, asking if the Gettles were interested in taking over the business. In 2010, they bought the company, which sells seeds that thrive in the northeastern United States, including some that can be traced back to the preCivil War era.