A day at Comstock Ferre

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I was drawn in by the lure of the seed catalog this winter.  About six weeks ago, my mother handed me one from a Connecticut seed company: Comstock, Ferre & Co. based in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  The glamour shots of heirloom vegetables coupled with old timey drawings were enough to live in, never mind the descriptions that made me want to place an order for 14 types of tomatoes despite my lack of garden space.  I read the magazine cover to cover.

“I have to talk to these people,” I said to myself later as I idly flipped the pages.  I poked around on their website and contacted Randel Agrella, the store manager to see if he would be up for giving me a guided tour.  And he was!  I waited several weeks for their busy season to pass, but through the magic of the internet, you get the benefit of Randel’s expertise right now.

And expert he is.  Randel came up to Connecticut to manage the store from Mansfield, Missouri where Comstock’s parent company Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is located.  Baker Creek bought Comstock two years ago, though as Randel put it, “Someone has been selling seeds on this spot since 1811.”  Talk about a local company.

When I walked into Comstock, I felt that history wash over me.  The building is a big old house and barn converted into a store, with space for meeting rooms, New England artisan-crafted wares, hundreds and hundreds of kinds of seeds, an attached greenhouse, and even a funny little room full of old farm machinery that Randel told me they’re hoping to expand into a kind of living history museum.  Sounds good to me!

Randel gave me a quick tour, stopping off at the at the counter where they package the seed shipments using old seed scoops, at the greenhouse where his own personal business Abundant Acres rents space to grow seedlings to ship out across the country, and at the outdoor demonstration gardens next to the Belden House, also owned by the company.

Randel told me that the demonstration gardens are laid out in raised beds over existing an parking lot.  “You literally can’t get worse soil than this,” he said, “so if we can grow here, anyone can grow in any soil.”  He also let me in on company owner Jere Gettle’s plans: to turn Comstock into a destination for heirloom and historic farming and gardening information in conjunction with creating a nonprofit organization.  Big ideas for a seed company that specializes in region-appropriate plant varieties!

This was all enough to get me interested in Comstock, but the real reason I knocked on their door was to find out about the legal action Comstock Ferre, Baker Creek, and Abundant Acres (in addition to 80 other companies, individuals, and family farms) are taking against Monsanto.  If you don’t know, Monsanto is the GMO giant that is putting pesticides into our food without telling us, and suing the farmers whose crops are cross-pollinated with genetically modified seeds when they didn’t purchase the GM seeds in the first place.  Monsanto is not your friend.

The lawsuit would prevent Monsanto from suing farmers who accidentally grow genetically modified food thanks to crop seeds’ persistent habit of spreading via wind.  (Darn those seeds!  If only they would behave…).  Unfortunately, a judge dismissed the case but our friendly neighborhood farms are filing an appeal to have the judge’s ruling overturned.

What does this mean for us?  It means that someone is standing up to Monsanto, which gives me hope that maybe they can be stopped from contaminating all of our food supplies with genetically modified foods.  In the meantime, the idea that we should be labeling GMO foods is gaining support in Connecticut, thanks in part to Comstock Ferre.

I asked Randel where they get their seeds (answer: the open market and independent growers) and how they know they are not genetically modified seeds.  He said that they test all of their corn varieties, which is the main one to worry about, though he thinks they should be testing the beets too because beets are a widely-used sugar crop.  Other than that, all 255 of Comstock’s seeds and the 1400+ from Baker Creek are heirloom and non-GMO varieties.

Although I didn’t receive anything in return for this blog post, I didn’t leave empty handed.  I picked up a few seed packets to attempt to grow something in the dirt around my apartment, and the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog.  Fun fact: Baker Creek has a full time vegetable photographer on staff.  What a dream job!

And so concludes this epic post on my local seed company, an awesome small business that is putting the fun back in farming.  Why don’t you go drool awhile over the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog, or peruse the Comstock Ferre website to see if you can attend their 2nd annual heirloom seed festival this June?  I’ll be puttering around outside, shooing the dogs from my growing kale and parsley, and daydreaming of those 14 tomato varieties.  Sigh.  Some day.

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©2012 at Simple Savvy, the simple living blog where I had a blast fondling the local yarn they sell at Comstock Ferre, and though I took a picture of it for you, I figured maybe I should leave it out of the blog post.  Oh hell, I can’t.  Here it is:

You’re welcome!

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10 responses

  1. I can almost hear those hard wood floors creaking! How lovely!! There is a similar seed store about 2hrs from here that I go to for my seeds. I love the smell in seed stores. It smells like potential. So glad you shared this post! It makes me crave gardening time, too bad it’s still a moth off :( SPANK your hands for showing me that picture of yarny-goodness!!!

  2. I started reading this and wondering how many know about Monsanto’s practices. I just watched a movie about how big business has American consumers by the gonads. It makes me so sad to think of the farmers that have lost their legal battles against Monsanto, for simply saving their seeds! OMG I hate that their lobbyists have so much power. I am also concerned that so many of us are under the delusion of protections provided by the government.

    • I’m not sure it’s too many people. Every time I’ve talked about Monsanto to someone in the last few weeks, I’ve had to go into detail about what makes them a terrible company — which, to be frank makes me nervous. How can they not know? But then I realize not everyone cares about where their food comes from. Sigh. So in the meantime, I try to keep my spirits up and spread the word.

  3. If you want to go visit – they are closed Saturdays. Another great place to visit during the summer is the Coventry Regional Farmers Market – some of the same vendors and some former vendors regularly have booths there. I worked for Comstock Ferre when the new owners first purchased it, and most of the vendors I found for the store, were those I knew from this amazing market!

  4. thanks for the pictures! I’m right down the street from the Baker Street seed bank. I hope make it out to Comstock one day!