Monday, June 4, 2012

Meatless Monday: The Heirlooms of Old Wethersfield

Just off I-91, between the city of Hartford and the suburban sprawl of Rocky Hill, lies quiet Old Wethersfield, a popular destination for tourists and schoolchildren wishing to get a glimpse of colonial American life through such attractions as the 1715 Buttolph-Wiliams House, the setting for The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

The home of Comstock & Ferre Co., the oldest seed company in New England, the town is also a mecca for organic gardeners. The heirloom seed company was having a party for its 201st birthday when we happened to pull into town yesterday. There were musicians, period re-enactors, vendors, and speakers passionate about issues related to GMO crops, including Bill Duesing, Director of CT-NOFA. 

Comstock & Ferre started in 1811 as Wethersfield Gardens, which was sold to Judge Franklin Comstock and his son William in 1838.  Inspired by the Shakers of Enfield, Connecticut, who were the first to package and sell garden seeds in colorful packets, William adopted the practice and plied his seeds in lidded display boxes of his own design to shopkeepers throughout New England and as far west as the Mississippi. In 1845, William took on a partner — Henry Ferre. William Comstock retired in 1871, and the growing company was operated late into the 20th century by four generations of the Willard family. 

Its newest owners are the Gettle family – Jere, Emilee, and daughter Sasha, who also own and operate Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri (their home and first business) and the Seed Bank in Petaluma, California. Baker Creek Founder Jere Gettle planted his first garden at 3, and in 1998, at the age of 17, printed the first small Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog, which now offers 1300 varieties of seed in its beautiful 196 pages. The Gettles collect seeds from around the world and only sell non-hybrid, non-GMO, non-treated and non-patented seed. They work extensively to supply free seeds to “many of the world’s poorest countries” as well as to school gardens and educational projects in the US. Their mission is to “educate everyone about a better, safer food supply and fight gene-altered, Frankenfood and the companies that support it.” You can read more about the fascinating family here, here, and here.

The Gettles’s dream for the grounds and eleven buildings of the Comstock & Ferre property is to “erase modern influences around the company and return it to something that William Comstock or Stephen F. Willard could recognize, if they were to walk through the doors. Comstock will be a type of living history museum dedicated to agriculture and our diverse inheritance of heirloom seed varieties that are in danger of extinction…”

Old Wethersfield is a short drive from New Haven and is worth the trip just to visit Comstock & Ferre. In nice weather you could easily spend a day with so much to see and do and a wide range of eating options near the attractions (as well as places suitable for a picnic). Just remember not to visit on Saturday if you want to step inside Comstock & Ferre. 

You can also peruse the Comstock & Ferre and Baker Creek Heirloom catalogs and shop from them online.  

I often blog on food, food issues, or topics related to growing things on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

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