Photography: Courtesy Petaluma Seed Bank
Photography: Courtesy Petaluma Seed Bank

A small shop in a converted Victorian bank building is doing a big job of saving all-natural heirloom seeds.

A repository of the past to feed the future, the Petaluma Seed Bank in California is an extension of the Mansfield, Missouri-based Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, which was founded by Jeremiath Gettle in 1998. The West Coast outlet opened in 2009 in Petaluma’s former National Bank Building. Where personal wealth and business profits were once secured by a vault, now seeds are safeguarded.

The similarity isn’t lost on Petaluma Seed Bank’s manager, a thin, balding gentleman with a slight Irish lilt who favors clothing more in line with early 20th-century farmers. “Isn’t it wonderful?” Paul Wallace asks. “We’re a seed bank in an old Victorian bank building.”

The seed bank’s inventory includes 1,700 varieties of all-natural, non-hybrid, non-GMO heirloom seeds, most of which are acquired from growers in about 70 countries where the Baker Seed Company has contracted farmers and small growers to cultivate the varieties in isolation. Beyond that, there is a small group of individuals integral to the success of the bank’s mission. “We also have seed enthusiasts, like Joseph Simcox, the Botanical Explorer, who travel the world in search of unique and endangered varieties,” Wallace says. “Through him and others we try to maintain diversity and endeavor to revive varieties that are on the brink of extinction.”

But there’s more to the Petaluma Seed Bank’s mission than conservation. After all, the shop is a small-town business dependent on the community, which is the true reason the seed bank is there: Surrounding Sonoma County contains a high concentration of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company’s customers.

“The typical customer is the home gardener,” Wallace says. “We also have quite the clientele of small farmers who grow specifically for chefs or farmers markets who want those unusual or exotic varieties. However, not all of the varieties we carry are unusual and exotic. There is a huge demand for people wanting to grow their everyday vegetables ... ‘pure food,’ so the standard everyday melons, squash, carrots, beans, and tomatoes are also a big part of our business.”

The staggering breadth of the inventory will soon find a new home. Wallace and his five employees are busy converting the former bank vault into a legitimate seed bank. So far they have outfitted the space with shelves and enclosed the entrance of the vault to better control temperature and humidity — essential elements for the maintenance of their stock.

“At the entrance to the vault is the hefty, grand, and formidable vault door that really looks the part,” Wallace says. “Inside, when complete, we will be able to house about 4,000 varieties in glass jars. We have quite a few school tours, and for the kids to see the diversity of the seeds is a major eye-opener for them.”

From the May/June 2015 issue.

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