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Raising rare seeds and growing a small business

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KAYTE YOUNG:  From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is our feeds.

JORDAN CHELL:  We have about a 4 acre parcel of land here that's sub-divided into a whole bunch of micro plots, basically, where we can isolate the black strawberry tomato, or the Chinese wallflower, or a gourd, or whatever it happens to be, and we can make that those seeds stay pure. Purity is one of the biggest things that we do here; we do a lot of purity trials. We maintain the seed that we're selling somebody, we want to make sure that that seed is 100% true to type.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week on the show, we visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, to learn the particulars of growing for seed. Violet Baron talks with the owners of Lost Farm Meal Service about growing a business during a pandemic. That's all just ahead. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. Amarillo. Black Nebula. Chantenay Red Core. Gniff. Uzbek Golden. St Valery. Koral. Lunar White. Little Finger. Manpukuji. Oxheart and Purple Dragon. That's just a sampling of the carrot varieties listed in the Baker Creek Seed catalog. If it's beans, you're looking for, they have your Blue Lake Bush. Contender, aka Buff Valentine. Dragon Tongue Bush. Cherokee Trail of Tears. Good Mother Stallard. Greasy Grits and Black Turtle, to name a few.

KAYTE YOUNG:  They've also got varieties of Bitter Melon, Huckleberry, Cabbages, Cowpea Rutabaka. Quinoa. Rosemary, Broccoli, Swiss Chard and every type of flower under the sun. If you have a chance to visit Baker Creek in Mansfield, Missouri, flowers might be the first thing you notice.

JORDAN CHELL:  What we do here at Baker Creek is, we do three things: we make seeds, we do trials, and we grow beauty.

KAYTE YOUNG:  When I visited in mid-April, it was just past their annual tulip festival, but the tulips themselves remained spectacular. Planting flowers en-mass, in an organized fashion, bed upon bed of vibrant blooms, spanning a giant open courtyard with tidy stone paths, it has a certain kind of affect. Jaw-dropping beauty is one way to describe it. Baker Creek is a seed company, founded by Jere Gettle in 1998. They specialize in rare seeds and heirloom varieties.

KAYTE YOUNG:  On their website, they state, quote, "We believe farmers, gardeners and communities have the right to save their own seeds and in so doing, preserve seed diversity and food security, in an age or corporate agriculture and patented hybridized or genetically modified seeds." All of the seeds they sell can be saved, shared and traded. Baker Creek is world renowned for their specialty seeds.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I had the chance to visit their headquarters in Southern Missouri. The farm is a magical wonderland for folks who love to grow things, food or flowers, and they plant the historical side of things with a bit of a pioneer village vibe. After browsing the expansive display of seed packets in their country store, I met up with farm manager, Jordan Chell.

JORDAN CHELL:  My name is Jordan. I work here at Baker Creek Seeds. I'm on the farming operations here, I help manage the farm here at Baker Creek, Mansfield. I'm a farmer by trade. I grew up farming 200 acres of bell peppers in California, Ventura County. As a kid, I just worked on the farm. I actually hated farming growing up. I told my dad I was never going to be a farmer and it was just the last thing on Earth I wanted to do.

KAYTE YOUNG:  But that changed. He found his way back into farming, first with a bird management business on berry farms on the West Coast, and then, he got involved with research and development at a test plot with Driscoll Strawberries. There he learned skills in sub-straight and hydroponic growing and breeding. He then moved on to a company that was growing organic living butter lettuce.

JORDAN CHELL:  Living butter lettuce is a head of lettuce that you grow, and you harvest it, it's clean because it's hydroponic. When you pull the lettuce out of the raft, which is the float that it's growing in, you're selling the lettuce attached to the roots.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Right. So it lasts a little longer? It's...


KAYTE YOUNG:  ...really alive when the person purchases it?

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes. In shelf-life trials, it can sit in your fridge for almost five weeks and still be really edible. I learned a lot about organic, hydroponic, bacterial and fungi relations there, and that really got me coming out of a conventional farming background with conventional fertilizers, conventional pesticides and go in the straight conventional route which you can grow plants that way quite well, to this more like regenerative, sustainable Ecosystem that we helped to build and develop for this butter head lettuce program. That got me into a mental state of, "Okay, there's really something going on here with the relationship with the sun and the energy, and the plants, and the pests."

JORDAN CHELL:  I ended up making another jump to working on a cannabis farm in California, an 8 acre greenhouse, that I helped set up and develop, and institute a lot of those organic regenerative practices there. Due to the whole California cannabis market bottoming out and mega corporations coming in and battling, we ended up folding.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Around this time, is when Jordan moved to Missouri, and took the job at Baker Creek.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Baker Creek is a seed company...


KAYTE YOUNG:  ...Can you talk a little bit about how it's different when you're growing something for seed, versus when you're growing it for the fruit, or for the leaf, or for the root?

JORDAN CHELL:  On the seed aspect of it, we do things that are called seed stock increases or grow-outs. If we like a variety, and we need seed on it, we'll isolate it and we'll make sure it stays pure, then we'll harvest those seeds, process them through our processing department. We end up with a batch of seeds on our hands, that we can then take to another grower who we partner with, and say, "Okay, here's a batch of seeds, we want you grow this out so we can have a larger volume for us to sell." They have to meet our standards and work with our departments here, to meet certain requirements for producing those seeds.

JORDAN CHELL:  Some of those seeds that we do save and grow, we'll do the grow-outs here ourselves as well. We have about a 4-acre parcel of land here that's sub-divided into a whole bunch of micro plots, basically, where we can isolate the black strawberry tomato, or the Chinese wallflower, or a gourd, or whatever it happens to be, and we can make sure that those seeds stay pure. Purity is one of the biggest things that we do here; we do a lot of purity trials. We maintain that seed that we're selling somebody, we want to make sure that that seed is 100% true to type. Then we'll trial it here and verify that it is.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What are some of the techniques you use for isolating? Maybe it's different for different species, but--

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes, definitely different for different species. Things are pollinated by wind, pollinated by insects, these are the two main modes of pollination. Depending upon the size of the pollen grain, and how it moves, you have different isolation distances, as far as actual space, wind buffers. For example, corn, is like a mile. Tomatoes are technically 25ft, we do 50ft here. Then we do a lot of greenhouse growing here which we've definitely moved towards in the last couple of years. We can do things that would require a lot of space outside, now they're in an enclosed environment, locked down, we can do several different things of the same like corns, or gourds, or cucumbers, or whatever, melons, we can do them all right next to each other.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Within the greenhouse, you're able to set up barriers and enclosures to protect them from cross-pollinating?

JORDAN CHELL:  That's correct. This year we started a breeding program and we've been doing a lot of micro isolation events with putting up insect netting. We make a frame over the plants that we want to isolate, fit insect netting and then we release bottle flies to do the pollination work for us. This way we can move the pollen around, and we don't have to sit there and hand pollinate these little tiny flowers, as some of them are quite small.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I was just going to ask about that. Have you done some hand-pollination, and what is that like?

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes. Our head breeder here, his name is Weston, he came on this past year to help start this breeding program, and he's been going around doing hand- pollination events all over the farm, and tagging things. As an example, we're doing a lot of really cool new work on pansies, and in the next couple of years we are going to be offering a whole line of Baker Creek pansy development.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What does that look like, is it just sort of like a Q-tip type of thing, where you're just kind of moving from one flower to the next?

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes. A flower has male pollen and a female receptor. We can in-depth to this, or we can keep it high level and simple, but you take the male pollen and you put it on that female receptor. If you're crossing two flowers, you'll strip one of them of all of it's male parts, so there's not a chance of that male part getting onto that flower. You can then take another flower, from another plant of the same species and bring it in and make that cross, to mix up genetics, basically. Then that stays tagged so you know, okay, this flower's been crossed, you save the fruit, extract the seeds and you're off to the races with another line of water melons, for example.

JORDAN CHELL:  We're doing a water melon project. We're going into the F3s and F4s this year on a little tiny, really good, sweet, high bricks, ice-box water melon from Japan that we've been working on. The interesting thing about it, is the rind is just paper thin. You can practically eat the whole melon, it's out of this world, and the seed are super small, you can't even tell that you're eating seeds. I think that will be pretty fun.

KAYTE YOUNG:  What are you trying to do with that? You're trying to cross it with something else, or you're just trying to successfully grow it yourself?

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes, that's a good question. That kind of segueways into another thing we do here. This melon we're working on is actually a dehybridization event. Maybe we should back up and say this. With a lot of seeds on the market, people get confused; "what's an heirloom? What's an open pollinated? What's a land race? What's a hybrid?" There's all these terms that float around. A hybrid is what a lot of seed companies sell. What it is, it's two homozygous, that means completely stabilized genetics. Let's take water melons for example, because we are working on a water melon project. You have two water melons, that if you saved the seeds from them and kept them isolated, they would just continue to be pure, they would be the same seed every time, you would get the same melons relatively, they're consistent, they're homozygous.

JORDAN CHELL:  An F1 hybrid is when you take two of those homozygous genetics and you cross them. You get a lot of seeds that are almost identical, vigorous and just amazing, but they're hybrids. Then if you take that hybrid seed, save it, and re-plant it, you're going to get the genetic expression of all those genes that were hidden inside of there, they mix up again. What we're doing with this water melon is we're de-hybridizing it. We're taking two homozygous plants and we're taking that F1 and then we're planting out the F1 to stabilize and stabilize and bring it back to make it homozygous and we're selfing, and selfing, and selfing to get it to be pure again. That will create a new, quote unquote, "Heirloom genetic."

JORDAN CHELL:  Heirloom genetic, or an heirloom varietal, there's a lot of different terminology that floats around. My best understanding of it is, a variety that's been around and is relatively pure for the last 50 years, or longer, it's stabilized and it's like a known genetic. There's a lot of good genetics out there that could classify as heirlooms but they're just not on the market.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I'm jumping in here to admit that I got a bit confused here about the difference between heirlooms, open pollinated and hybrids. I found good explanations for the differences on the Baker Creek website, which I linked to in the show notes The main thing to keep in mind is that, hybrid seeds cannot be saved and planted the next year. I mean, you can do that, but you can't be certain that the fruit will be the same that second year.

KAYTE YOUNG:  With heirlooms, you can save seed year after year, trade with your neighbors and pass them down over generations, the seeds are stable. Those are the only kinds of seeds that Baker Creek sells. However, that doesn't mean that they don't do any breeding at all. They sell what's called open pollinator varieties, which means the seeds were bred naturally by wind, insects, animals, or by human hands in a minimally invasive way, which can include passing pollen between varieties, using a paint brush or a feather.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Many heirloom varieties were created with this type of crossing, but they need to be stabilized over generations, which is what Jordan was describing with the isolating and selfing.

JORDAN CHELL:  The last aspect to this terminology is what they call a land race, and that is a genetic or variety that's been out in the wild, undisturbed, with its genetic pool. You could have tomatoes, for example, in the Andes and they're just floating around out there on some hillside, and there's just this pool of genetics that's been isolated. That's a land race genetic. Very low yielding but they have the genetic material inside of them to make exquisite plants.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Why would you call them exquisite plants?

JORDAN CHELL:  I think it has to do with the fact that, when you make these heirlooms and you're selfing, and selfing, and selfing, and you're creating this completely

in-bred plant, you lose a lot of its strength. You gain a lot of good things, but you lose a lot of the plant's actual vigor and strength. So these land races, their genetic pools are just so diverse and their stability in having a large variation of genetic material in your DNA, and because they're always crossing with each other, its always kind of getting mixed up a little bit. But when you're selfing, and selfing, and selfing on a lot of these heirlooms, a lot of complaints are "oh, my heirloom tomatoes, they get downy mildew" or anthracnose, or they're just kind of sick looking over time.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I see, so that's why heirlooms sometimes aren't the best producers, or they're something like you said, that it's easy for them to get disease?

JORDAN CHELL:  They get a bad rap, but flavor-wise, and nutritionally-wise, they are more nutritious and that's reflective in the flavor.

KAYTE YOUNG:  There's a reason people prefer them, even though they have these other issues.

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes. And the ability to save your own seed. You could do it with a hybrid, but you're going to have to plant out 200 pepper plants of the F1 hybrid, and select and then keep going, and then wait seven years and people don't have time for that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You talked about isolating and getting seeds made, and you also talked about then you process those seeds. What's involved in processing seeds?

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes, that's the battle. The growing is relatively easy, and then you have this fruit that's on the vine, or on the plants, and you've got to, number one, make sure it's at the maturity level so that the seeds will be ripe. Sometimes we'll harvest and let that fruit sit a little, to make sure that it gets the complete seed ripeness. Then, depending on what type of plant we're saving seeds from, we will cut the plants into pieces, we'd run them through certain types of shredding machines and separators, to extract the pulp from the seed, and a lot of different washings through screens, to get just the seed because that's all that we're after.

JORDAN CHELL:  Once you have that, then we put them on drying racks and we dry the seed to the right moisture content. We will immediately plant that seed, and verify its going to germinate and grow, and then we'll store the seed in our warehouse.

KAYTE YOUNG:  When you say, you plant the seed, you're just planting a small amount, just to make sure that they're viable?

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes, we'll do anywhere between 36 and 50, to a 100, depending on what seeds we're doing, to get a quick germination rate. If it looks bad, we'll do a larger lot to verify. If it looks great, okay, then it's good. Then it goes into the program and we do additional separate purity trials to grow that plant out to its full maturity to verify everything's good and legit.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow. It sounds like it's farming and it's science.

JORDAN CHELL:  It is, yes. I would say it's the cross between those two, it's definitely an art. I've definitely learned a lot from the people here, who have been doing it for quite a while, and it's pretty amazing. Saving seed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's Jordan Chell, with Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield, Missouri. We need to take a quick break now, and when we come back, Jordan takes me around the farm to a few of their greenhouses. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here, this is Earth Eats, and we're back with Jordan Chell of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. They're headquartered in Mansfield, Missouri, not far from where my brother lives in Springfield. On a family visit, I arranged to talk with Jordan to learn about the particular work of a seed farm. After our interview, Jordan was kind enough to take my brother and I on a short tour through some of the greenhouses on the grounds.

JORDAN CHELL:  There's like over 20 greenhouses here that range between 3,000 to 5,000



JORDAN CHELL:  We've got a farming crew of five to six people in any given day. It's kind of just non-stop, we just go from one to the next, one to the next, and attack them one by one really. Off out there in the distance, that is some of our outdoor plots that we're starting to work up this for our seed isolation trials, and seed saving events.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's cool that you call it a seed saving event.

JORDAN CHELL:  [LAUGHS] Yes. I guess that's just how I view it, I don't know. We've got Shannon right here, he's our lead tractor driver, and anything on a tractor that you need done, he'll handle it. He's on the tractor right now, tilling and getting ready. We're going to plant a bunch of sweet potatoes out here in this plot for the restaurant, for eating, evaluations and 22 new heirloom sweet potato trials we're putting in this year.

JORDAN CHELL:  Right now, we're walking through, what we call the kitchen garden. This used to be the garden where a lot of the food crops were grown, but it's transitioned to all flowers. This is where all the flower trials go on in these raised beds down here.

JORDAN CHELL:  We can look in these two, and then walk to that one.


JORDAN CHELL:  This is one of our seed starting houses here. We do everything on heat mats and in either 50 cell trays, or six packs. What we have on this bench, for example, is all the tomatoes and peppers that we're going to send out to California this year for our Expo. We're start growing here and then we ship the plants to California and put them in the ground out there. They're all started and it's just a ticking time clock, waiting for the shipping to take place.

JORDAN CHELL:  Can you see the orange trees here?


JORDAN CHELL:  Do you want to see them?


JORDAN CHELL:  This is our mixed potted culture and seedling overflow house. This is kind of an intermediary staging area where we can get things a little bit bigger. For example, we've got a bunch of petunias that we started, they're in 1 gal. that are looking amazing. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, all a bunch of different flowers, nasturtiums, coleus, poppies, vincas, gomphrenas. We could keep going down the list.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Snapdragon.

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes, snapdragon. There's everything imaginable in here. On the back section, we have a little repository of some different ornamental genetics that we're working on, seeing if we want to do something with.


JORDAN CHELL:  Let's go to the citrus.

JORDAN CHELL:  Okay. Here's our citrus house. One of the two citrus houses we have going.



JORDAN CHELL:  Most of these are dekopon, Japanese oranges, and they're amazing. They're like a cross between a tangerine and an orange. We can peel one here. They're mostly done, we picked a lot of them. Ken, one of the chefs in the restaurant, he's been making home-made orange soda, which has about ten oranges per gallon, and it's just out of this world, good. So fresh.

JORDAN CHELL:  We'll sneak around. The further up you go, the better they are. We picked all the ones down low here. Let me see if I can grab one here. You'll see if it's any good. This is really small. I'll show you guys, the dekopon orange it's actually really, really big, but these trees set a lot of fruit, so the energy went into making more oranges than a few big oranges. This one's just okay.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's just okay?

JORDAN CHELL:  It's nothing special.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Ooh, no, I like it. Wow.

JORDAN CHELL:  We've got lemons, and guavas, and avocados, and kumquats, and just a whole menagerie of sub-tropical things. We've got finger limes. These orange trees can comfortably take down to 30, 32, they can take down to 28 a little bit. We supplemental heat these houses in the winter. Last winter, these things were just covered in snow, and there's a little bit of heat and orange trees are good to go.


JORDAN CHELL:  If you look on this tree here, this is how big they're supposed to be.


JORDAN CHELL:  Just massive. There's another one here. So, next year our plan is to de-bloom these trees and really just get a whole lot of massive oranges. I measured the biggest one that we had, weight-wise, picked off the tree, it was 975g.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow. And so you're going to try to grow some to their full.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We stopped at one last greenhouse.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh. Nasturtium heaven.

GARY YOUNG:  Oh, the smell.

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes. Nasturtiums are where it's at.

GARY YOUNG:  Oh, gosh.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This is gorgeous. Yes, it smells so peppery. Gary, do you remember that our mom used to grow these? We had wallpaper in one of our houses that had nasturtiums all over.

JORDAN CHELL:  Really? That's cool. I need to do that to my bathroom, that would be cool. [LAUGHTER]

KAYTE YOUNG:  There was nasturtium wallpaper.

JORDAN CHELL:  Lemon. Meyer lemon. Kumquats. Guavas that we transplanted. You can see here all the older leaves are falling by the way side but all the newer bud growth. These trees are going to be flushed out here this spring, real nice.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Look how happy this kohlrabi is. It's gorgeous.

JORDAN CHELL:  Yes, really nice green kohlrabi.

KAYTE YOUNG:  It's so green. I mean, every time I see a plant like this, it's just riddled in bug damage. It's just so lovely to see it so happy.

JORDAN CHELL:  We do a lot of compost tea here. We've transitioned of doing of living soil injections.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Compost tea, living soil injections, whatever they're doing, it seems to be working. The greenhouses and the grounds of Baker Creek are lush and impressive. If you want to learn more about Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, we have links on our website and you can find their Instagram page @bakercreekseeds.

KAYTE YOUNG:  We were speaking with Farm Manager, Jordan Chell. After a quick break, producer, Violet Baron, shares a story about a local food business for busy folks who value fresh food. Stay with us.

VIOLET BARON:  Does this sound familiar? You're driving home from work after a long day, with a list of domestic "to dos" already in your mind. You're hungry, and tired, and the last thing you want to do is come up with something to eat that's healthy and tasty, and will not require you then to clean a kitchen's worth of pots, pans and plates. I have a series of iPhone notes and Pinterest boards aimed at solving the ideas portion of this challenge, but the rest continues to elude me.

VIOLET BARON:  Well, Kelli and Ron Abdon at Lost Farm have a potential solution. Their business delivers pre-cooked, plant-forward meals to customers in pre-portion sizes. Kelli and Ron are a husband and wife team, who live on a farm just outside of Bloomington. It's one that's been in Kelli's family for generations. Ron, the chef, is a 20 year veteran of the restaurant industry. They teamed up after the start of the pandemic to use their strengths in growing and cooking food to try out this new venture. I sat down with them in their sunny kitchen in early spring of 2023, to hear more about the project.

KELLI ABDON:  It's both the farm where we live, and then also our meal service business. We try to buy local ingredients and treat them well, and my husband's been cooking for many years. We deliver people pre, already cooked, ready to eat meals.

RON ABDON:  Typical ready to re-heat is the other one.

KELLI ABDON:  Ready to re-heat at your convenience.

VIOLET BARON:  What was the genesis of this idea? What made you want to start a food business, and want it in town?

RON ABDON:  I had worked in restaurants for many, many years. The farm was always here, with the garden, and that was just purely for us wanting to eat fresh food that we grew. Kelli's passionate about gardening, that was her love. I not only worked in restaurants but I'm also a home cook. I would work in restaurants during the day and come home and cook for the whole family here on the farm for many, many years and that was where it all kind of started.

RON ABDON:  When the pandemic hit, I was sort of questioning what I wanted to do in the food world, and I think a lot of people were re-thinking their place in the food world. That's where the meal service idea came up, something that could showcase my home cooking, where I got to cook what I want and how I wanted, but also deliver it to people in a way that was safe. I think a lot of people were thinking that way. During the pandemic, a lot of restaurants shifted to more delivery. I definitely thought that, and that was the genesis of the idea.

RON ABDON:  We were like, "Hey, let's start this meal service business." We have relatives that use different meal services or meal-prep services, now ours goes a step further and everything's fully cooked and ready to re-heat. We also thought it would be a way to showcase local food as well. We buy produce from local farmers and proteins from local farmers, and help show case the local food that we have here in Bloomington.

KELLI ABDON:  It's a great way to combine our two loves, the garden and food. We always wanted to work together and this was the way that it finally came together for us.

KELLI ABDON:  When the pandemic hit, we didn't have trouble buying eggs, or bread, or meat and it was because we were used to shopping from the local farmers. That system didn't break down and so that really encouraged us, that the local system here is pretty strong, and we wanted to plug into it and be more part of it.

RON ABDON:  Cooking seasonally and talking with the farmers, and knowing what they're going to have. What are you going to have next week? What are you going to have two weeks from now? That really helps me focus on the menu and can help guide me. I mean, I can cook whatever I want, it's our small business but I try to do my best to produce things seasonally for people.

KELLI ABDON:  I was already going to the farmers market every weekend, and that was just one of my things and that kept going during the pandemic, which was nice. I think people really got to know each other more because there was less people showing up. You could order ahead, so they'd see your name, and connect your name, and your face, and your order. Made a lot of friends with the farmers, and I love it when they're like, "Okay, I'm going to have too many potatoes," or "I'm going to have this--" and then I'd go to him and I'd say, "Okay, make a potato dish," and he does and it's delicious.

RON ABDON:  The other thing that we've started doing as well is, Kelli has increased what we're producing in our own garden and at our own farm. We've been open almost two years now, and over those two years we've learned what we use a lot of and what we're good at growing here on the farm. We've increased that, so that we're producing a lot of the food, especially in the summer time, that Lost Farm Meal Service uses, and it helps us keep food costs down.

RON ABDON:  During that time of year, when there's a lot of produce, but organic and local produce is not cheap either, a lot of the farmers will work with you on stuff, but their margins are probably just as slim as a restaurant or our food business margins, if not slimmer. They can't discount their food even if I am buying it in bulk. They are willing to work with you, but it's also been really helpful to just grow our own and have that source of really, really in-house grown produce that we can feature of our own. It works to both of our strengths.

KELLI ABDON:  I was really happy for about two or three months, he didn't have to buy any onions, and I love growing alliums, you know, garlic and onion family. That just made me so happy. Not that onions are the most expensive thing to buy but, we use a lot of them, a ton of them.

RON ABDON:  It takes a community of people specializing in doing things. I think if you try to do everything by yourself, there's not just enough time in the day and so, we picked what we're good at and what we like doing, and we try to fit into the puzzle of the local food community.

VIOLET BARON:  Kelli, do you have some sort of creative autonomy in that? Can you decide, I really want to try growing this thing and maybe we'll incorporate it this year?

KELLI ABDON:  For sure. My mom loves lima beans and I told him this year I'm taking up space for the lima beans. That's just going to happen. It may not be enough for the meal service to use, but we both love peppers. It's fun for me to say, "I found this new pepper variety, and this is what I think you can use it for," and sometimes he has other ideas. He'll say, "It'd be really nice if I had eggplants." I have never grown eggplants but he said "I'm using them a lot, they're great in curries, could we have some of those?" Some people are doing it, but I can throw a few extra plants out there, next to the peppers because they're the same family. I'm happy to do that.

KELLI ABDON:  It's a creative, part science, part art thing that we have going on here. We love that.

VIOLET BARON:  That's very clear, sounds that way. That's nice too because sometimes when something you enjoy, planting and gardening becomes your business, you lose of that pleasure, so it's nice to hear you get to retain some of that or make decisions within it.

KELLI ABDON:  That's true. We could have any food business, he can cook almost anything, and we wanted to do one that we could keep going, so we weren't making the same food every single week; that was something that grinds you down when you're in the restaurant. Every year I can grow a little bit different things, or if I grow nothing, there's enough farmers markets that we can supply it that way.

KELLI ABDON:  I think we found a good balance where you find a job that you love, and it doesn't feel like work, that's where we are and it's beautiful.

RON ABDON:  I think Kelli also really enjoys going through the seed catalogs and finding this new variety of something, plants it. Does it work? Is it working for us? Do we like eating it? It's part of the experimentation that goes on at the farm, on her end, as far as trying new things. Not everything becomes big enough to be part of the meal service, but we also just started and it's fun to play around with. As someone who cooks a lot, it's always fun when Kelli brings a new variety of anything into the house and it's just like, "Okay, let's see what we do with it."

RON ABDON:  I buy and read a lot of cookbooks and the Internet is so full of information about food from everywhere, even those weird varieties. You can just Google search that and someone's already cooked it and talked about it somewhere, and you can learn from them. But it's also fun just to go out on your own and see what you can make with a new ingredient.

KELLI ABDON:  Feeding people, it's a job, but it also crosses over into sort of a calling, and I think gardening is like that, too. We get so much pleasure when people tell us, "Oh, I love this dish" or someone else said, "I feel so much better eating your food." That means a lot, it makes it worthwhile.

VIOLET BARON:  Kelli, you were telling me as I was driving in, that it's your mother's and your sister's house, just on the same plot of land here.

KELLI ABDON:  My grandparents didn't move here until the 1960s. They worked really hard in the factories all their lives and saved up their money and got a plot of land, and they picked a good one, on the high ground. So, we're lucky to have that. My grandmother lived with us here until she was 97. I got a lot of good wisdom from her.

KELLI ABDON:  The other half of the family, they're just not into farming. They live up in Indianapolis and they wanted to sell the farm. Those houses that you can see, in the back 30 acres there, used to be part of our farm, and that was the compromise. We sold that and now those people get to live with a nice view of our place. What's left, is ours to do with what we want.

KELLI ABDON:  My side of the family, my mom and my sister were ecstatic and they're the kind, you give an idea and they're like, "Yes, you can do it. I believe in you, let's do it." We actually rent out that pasture to another farm, Maple Valley Farm, so they use that pasture for their cattle and their sheep. We have a great deal, we get meat from that. We love it, raised on our own land, it tastes delicious and it supports them.

KELLI ABDON:  When my grandparents were here, they had a small herd of cattle and a few horses. My grandpa was actually in the cavalry, when there was still a cavalry. Like the last ten years of the cavalry. He was really into horses, and they had a couple for pleasure. Then, after my grandfather died, there was a pony and there was my mom, St. Bernard's, and the cattle had to go as she got older. She started renting out to another farmer that's close by and he did the traditional corn and soya beans, sprayed them. He was following all the recommended practices that everyone does, but it wasn't organic and the rows would make the pasture just wash away. One of my biggest goals once we finally got control of this part of the farm, was to stop that and to switch it over to something organic and not paying for certification. We don't want to use any sprays or anything here.

KELLI ABDON:  The last time the farmer was here, I had him seed it into pasture grasses. I didn't really know what I was doing. I'm trying to read, trying to talk to people. At that time, not a lot of people I knew had experience from converting conventional grow crops to pasture, so I was making it up as I went along, but once you get the animals out there, you can really see the land do better. They move them every day when they're here. They'll move them once a day so the land doesn't get over used. It's useful, it's making this delicious food. That makes me happy.

RON ABDON:  I came to Bloomington for college and wasn't a very good college student. Like a lot of people in Bloomington, I got a job in the restaurant industry and fell in love with cooking. I felt like I was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed the restaurant life, the camaraderie, the stress, the hot kitchen. It was just a fun atmosphere for me, and I felt like I kind of thrived in it.

RON ABDON:  Did that for a while and like a lot of people in their mid-twenties, that's when Kelli and I met. When we moved back to Bloomington, there were almost the only jobs available in certain ways. I went back to the restaurant industry and re-fell in love cooking and worked at a few different restaurants. I think one of the main things that really sparked me, was working for One World Catering, just the variety of food that we cooked. At One World Catering I had to think more about processes. You would get a request to make a certain dish, so you just made it and you figured out how it was going to work. I think that really helped my education, but also helped learning to cook for that many people all at once, was a big part of the background of Lost Farm Meal Service, because that's what I do now.

RON ABDON:  I'm always cooking for 25 people at a time, and that's not something that you learn to do in restaurants, you do one person at a time, or maybe five people at a time, doing one dish. I think the balance of learning the basic skills in restaurants and then going into a catering company, really informed me but also by home cooking as well.

RON ABDON:  I enjoy food, but a line-cook salary doesn't let you spend a lot of money and so, we've always wanted to travel, but we've never had a lot of money. One way to travel in your mind, is to go get a cookbook, go check out a cookbook from the library from wherever, some place you can't afford to go to, and then cook a few things from it. We do all the work at the One World Kitchen Share, which is separate from One World Catering. I think Jeff Mease was really smart, but also compassionate to small businesses and food businesses and I think One World's done a really good job helping new, small food businesses get started with that space.

RON ABDON:  The One World Kitchen Share is a fully stocked, professional kitchen that you can rent by the hour. Once we set the business up and got inspected by the Health Department, you rent it by the hour, you go onto the website. I need it for eight hours, three days a week and I go in there and run it. There's currently two kitchens for rent right now, things are always changing over there, there's a lot of space. It's a really cool space to work in, it has everything that I need and more. I know a lot of food trucks use it for prep and there's other catering businesses.

KELLI ABDON:  That was one of the most surprising things to me, I thought, "Oh, I wish we had our own kitchen, and we didn't have to share." We wouldn't be out in this space, but it's been such a great experience. You meet all these small businesses. Someone new shows up, you're like, "Oh, hey, what do you make?" and then, you end up switching food and learning about type of food that you've never cooked before. Also, that space is cool because it's got different bays. Piccoli Dolci works there and the Bloomington Bagel Company has a bay out there, and it's separate. There's always so much going on there and people to talk to.

KELLI ABDON:  As a small business owner, you don't have time to research for the best prices for everything. You see someone, "Ooh, those are nice containers. Where did you get that? How much did you pay?" It's a place where you can share this kind of information and give people shortcuts, and it really means lots. It's also a place where, when you run out of rice, because someone forgot to put it on the list, you're just like, "Hey, can I borrow two cups of rice?", "there's some in there." It's a really great feeling, I love the community spirit that has popped up at the Kitchen Share.

VIOLET BARON:  What about the customer side? Who are some of the repeat customers that you're seeing?

KELLI ABDON:  A lot of people who used to cook a lot and maybe they're getting older, or just more busy, they don't have time.

RON ABDON:  I would say that a lot of our customers are people that just want to eat clean food, they don't want to eat anything artificial. I also think that there's people that use different meal-prep services but you still have to cook for half-an-hour. I think it's a time saver and a convenience for people. Some of our customers are just busy and don't have time to cook, but want to eat something that's home-made.

VIOLET BARON:  I was curious, on the one hand, it's single servings. I mean, you say that sometimes couples share it but, how come that was the best option for you guys?

KELLI ABDON:  We pretty much do everything and so we had to keep something streamlined. For Thanksgiving and holidays like that, we are able to sell things, but we knew people wanted to buy them more in bulk and family style. I think in the future, that might be something that we look to. We're starting to get more efficient and better at our job and so, we actually have time to think about what else we should be doing. A couple of people have asked for it, so we might do that, but I think the single serving just keeps it simple.

KELLI ABDON:  I think most people are using a microwave, it's very easy and convenient.

VIOLET BARON:  Is this a model you're seeing anywhere else?

RON ABDON:  I haven't seen it elsewhere. I can't be the only person that has come up with this idea, I'm sure it's going on in other places. The idea just sort of popped, almost like just ordering carry-out from a restaurant and then taking it home and putting it in your fridge, I don't know if you've ever done that. I've gone out to eat, where I'll eat and then I'm like, "I really want to have that too," so I'll just order that to go at the end of my meal and bring it home. Just thinking about that sort of formed the idea, but I don't know of anybody else. Most of the meal services seem to be either, you have to prepare them at home or sort of a one shop thing, you're buying cooked chicken or some cooked vegetables.

VIOLET BARON:  Not a full meal.

RON ABDON:  Yes. I think there used to be a company in Bloomington that was doing something like that, where you could mix and match proteins, but they just had ten different steamed vegetables and a few different proteins and you could buy three chicken breasts and four corns, or whatever.

RON ABDON:  I think we're offering local, organic meals made from scratch, and a convenience to people. I'm just trying to bring something really flavorful and really tasty, but it's also healthy and local, and organic whenever we can.

KELLI ABDON:  We have a lot of repeat customers, and I love seeing what they're gonna pick. I have my guesses and you learn what people like, that's a really fun part of it. You learn to guess, "Oh, this did really well," it gives us ideas of what else to make. We're just trying to feed people, we'll give them what they want and give them a clean and delicious meal.

VIOLET BARON:  Anything that you didn't expect in creating the business, or in building it up that you learned, or had to adapt to?

KELLI ABDON:  How much people love soup. And they miss, now that your soup is gone.

RON ABDON:  Yes, we started the business in the summer time, and when fall hit, we started making soup. I could not make enough soup. I don't know, that wasn't totally surprising. Then we started making two soups in a week and then both of those would sell out as well.

VIOLET BARON:  Going back to when something you love turns into the business, are you still enjoying the part of growing and then cooking the food?

KELLI ABDON:  I am. I love to see how we get better. It's a challenge to have a food business where you change the menu every week. We do repeat some of our dishes but just when you get good at something, the next week you're making something completely different. I love seeing us get more efficient, it's fun, and he's a great co-worker. I really like my co-worker. Love my boss. I love getting better. This job is teaching me to be better at gardening, and try different things. The joy is still there for me.

RON ABDON:  Don't let Kelli fool you, I'm not the boss of the business, she is definitely in charge. I'm still loving it, too. The ability to just share my home cooking with everybody and seeing how much joy I can give them has been really great for me. Also, just the challenge of coming up with new menus every week. That's maybe the hardest part, trying to keep it fresh, but I'm always reading new cookbooks or new blogs on the Internet and trying new dishes. Sometimes I'm trying new stuff out that I've never made before on the meal service, to see how it does and I always learn quite a bit when I do that.

RON ABDON:  Sometimes I make mistakes, but we always end up figuring out a way to make it delicious, that's something that you learn in the restaurant industry. There's no failing, you get it done. You make it happen. We always make it happen every week. It's always delicious, sometimes it's not pretty but we make it happen.

VIOLET BARON:  After our chat, Kelli took me out on a little tour of her garden, which she was just getting ready for spring planting.

VIOLET BARON:  Kelli, when I was coming in, you were doing something, what were you up to?

KELLI ABDON:  On sunny, spring days like this, I definitely have to get out in the garden. I was checking my mint, which has popped back up. I was clearing off the old dead stems from last fall, it protected the soil over the winter, and now you can see the little baby plants there. They're up about 2" right now. These raised beds here, were our pandemic project. We finally put in asparagus, and I have strawberries here. You can see, I over-wintered some kale. The cover blew off and the varmints ate some of it but it's coming back, kale's tough.

KELLI ABDON:  The garden is pretty much how I left it in the fall. I do a little mix of tilling and no tilling, I'm experimenting with. The tarps that you see laid out are going to be where the sweet potatoes are going to grow. They're going to warm the soil up all spring, so I can get those in when they send me the slips. The only thing that's growing right now is garlic and onions, you can see they pop up early, especially this year.

KELLI ABDON:  This bed, I learned that the more herbs and flowers that I grew with my garden, the less pests I have. I've put in these little corner perennial areas and you see this green ferny plant coming up here, is tansy. I need to clear off last years stuff here that was protecting the soil and give it room to come through. Tansy's tough, as soon as the sun comes back and we leave the Persephone period, it starts growing.

VIOLET BARON:  Did you say the Persephone period?

KELLI ABDON:  Oh, yes, sorry. When the amount of daylight goes to below a certain level, you can just tell, the plants shut down. It's like, November through, and in February it comes back and you leave it, and things start to grow again.

VIOLET BARON:  I love that. Yes, you can see these bright green little leaves coming up around all that brown matter that you're clearing out.

KELLI ABDON:  Well, and this here. Now, this, I don't know what this is called, but this is a weed. I give them little names when I don't know what they're called, so I just call this the rascal weed. It tells me that the soil is thawing out. I try not to get mad at it. I'm going to pick it out of here, and make room for my …that's going to self sow. I look at these little weeds and I think, when I see that, I know that in a couple of weeks something else is going to happen. I know when the white dog that blooms over there on the tree-line, it's time to go look for mushrooms. We never find them before the dogwood blooms but we always do afterwards.

VIOLET BARON:  Oh, that's very cool.

KELLI ABDON:  I really like to pay attention to the plants and the soil, it talks to you, if you pay attention.

VIOLET BARON:  Yes, it's very cool.

KELLI ABDON:  These are telling me, "Hey, all the early vegetables that like to grow, it's time, the ground is warm enough, you can start."

VIOLET BARON:  Oh. Awesome. It's a great note to end on. Alright, well, thank you so much Kelli, I really appreciate it.

KELLI ABDON:  Thank you so much.

VIOLET BARON:  That was Kelli and Ron Abdon at Lost Farm in Bloomington. We've spoken early spring of 2023, you can find more info on our website, for Earth Eats, I'm Violet Baron.

KAYTE YOUNG:  That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

KAYTE YOUNG:  The Earth Eats team includes Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Alex Chambers, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Schemenauer, Paten Whaley and Harvest Public Media. Special thanks this week to Kelli and Ron Abdon, Gary Young, Jordan Chell and everyone at Baker Creek. The show was produced and edited by me, Kayte Young. Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from Universal Production Music.

Jordan Chell standing in a greenhouse with orange flowers at his feet and trees with oranges around him

A carpet of peppery scented nasturtiums lines the citrus greenhouse at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in Mansfield Missouri. Farm Manager Jordan Chell gave us a tour. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“We have about a four acre parcel of land here that’s subdivided into a whole bunch of micro-plots, basically, where we can isolate, you know, the Black Strawberry Tomato, or the Chinese Wool Flower or a gourd or whatever it happens to be. And we can make sure that those seeds stay pure. Purity is one of the biggest things that we do here. We do a lot of purity trials, so we maintain that the seed we’re selling [to] somebody–we wanna make sure that that seed is 100% true to type.”

This week on the show we visit Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company to learn the particulars of growing for seed. 

And Violet Baron talks with the owners of Lost Farm Meal Service about growing a business during a pandemic. 

Growing Beauty

Baker Creek is a seed company founded by Jere Gettle in 1998 specializing in rare seeds and heirloom varieties.  On their website they state:

We believe farmers, gardeners, and communities have the right to save their own seeds and, in so doing, preserve seed diversity and food security in an age of corporate agriculture and patented, hybridized, or genetically modified seeds. 

All of the seeds they sell can be saved, shared, and traded.  

Baker creek is world renowned for their specialty seeds and I had the chance to visit their headquarters in Mansfield, Missouri. The farm is a magical wonderland for folks who love to grow things–food or flowers, and they play up the historical side of things with a bit of a pioneer village vibe.

Deep purple tulips in the foreground of a photo of many beds of tulips in bloom
I visited just after their annual Spring Tulip Festival, but the floral splendor remained(Kayte Young/WFIU)

After admiring a courtyard full of tulips in bloom and browsing the expansive display of seed packets in their country store, I met up with farm manager, Jordan Chell to learn about the behind-the-scenes work of this famous seed company.

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

Fast(er) food, straight from the farm

A woman Kelli Abdon in a sunhat smiling in front of a small farm field

Husband-and-wife team Kelli and Ron Abdon have a new meal delivery service that draws on their backgrounds in cooking and farming.

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