(UNUSUAL) PRODUCE PILGRIMAGE
The National Heirloom Exposition highlights the region’s food issues.
WRITTEN BY JOEL LIPPERT
PHOTOS BY BAKER CREEK HEIRLOOM SEEDS/RARESEEDS.COM
Billed as the World’s Pure Food Fair, the three-day, not-for-profit Heirloom Expo is that and so much more.
If you are a farmer or a gardener of any sort, especially of the organic variety, or if you follow food-related issues, or if you just love a good county fair but don’t like the smell of pavement-soaked beer or cotton candy, set your sights on the seventh annual National Heirloom Exposition this September at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, Calif.
For many in our local food, farming, and gardening circles, the expo has become a yearly pilgrimage. With the 27,000-square-foot exhibit hall (along with other displays all over the fairgrounds) packed to overflowing, the event has the world’s largest showing of heirloom produce — more than 4,000 varieties.
When you walk into the main exhibit hall, you can’t help but notice the iconic squash tower, and it seems to be squash, squash, and more squash everywhere. But then you notice the melons … and tomatoes … and garlic … and pears … and eggplant … and, well, you get the idea.
Luckily for the more than 20,000 attendees, it isn’t all look and no taste. Several times each day during the event, tastings are offered of most all the items on display (except for the squash). Of course, the melon and tomato tastings are the most well attended, but the lines and toothpicks all move quickly.
The expo is part garden show too, with the 40,000-square-foot vendor hall filled with booth after booth of seeds, gardening tools and supplies, books, handcrafted food items such as organic chocolates and pickled things, and many other specialty vendors. Last year, someone even sold organic jewelry.
So, too, will you find artist and craft vendors, and of course plenty of food vendors, all mostly outside under the beautiful, late-summer Santa Rosa sky. You can sit at a shaded picnic table and enjoy your organic, mostly locally sourced snack or meal and listen to down-home entertainment from the likes of Sourdough Slim or The Prairie Rose Band on the small outdoor stage. And some people attend just for the seed swap that is usually held on the last day. They bring seeds in from all over the country, trade them with locals, then take them back home to plant and share even further.
Each year, like at a typical county fair, you can watch the giant pumpkins being weighed for the colossal-pumpkin contest (Doesn’t every county fair have a 1,725-pound pumpkin?), or you can follow the judges as they pin various ribbons on all sorts of lovely —– and sometimes ugly yet prized — heirloom fruits, veggies, and heritage poultry and livestock. There’s also a rooster-crowing contest, dahlia competition, fiddler contest, and the biggest-tomato and best-tasting-honey contests.
One of the most sought-after prizes, however, is the one for the best school garden display. Students from about 30 schools set up displays that chronicle their work and learning from the previous year. The second day of the expo always is Kids’ Day, and last year, 130 buses brought students in to see the work their classmates produced and to learn about seed saving and where their food really comes from.
Seeds of knowledge
But the main focus of the entire event, even in the vendor hall, is on educating the public about the small and large food issues of our time.
Nearly 100 speakers, some from the other side of the world, fill three meeting halls with people vying to hear from and talk to leading activists and experts on all of the latest food, gardening, and farming topics, including urban gardening, soil science, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, beekeeping, efficient water use, biodynamics, seed diversity, and the importance of seed saving. Seeds are a big thing there.
The Expo is organized and managed by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, based in Mansfield, Mo. Baker Creek also owns the Petaluma Seed Bank, which is about 20 miles south of the fairgrounds, and Comstock Ferre & Co., a historic seed store in Wethersfield, Conn.
Owned by Emily and Jere Gettle (Jere started the company in 1998 at the age of 17), Baker Creek donates the proceeds from the event and the leftover produce to food banks and school garden programs in the greater Santa Rosa area.
Though Santa Rosa is outside of our immediate foodshed, it fits just within the 200-mile radius that many locavores, including our own Great Basin Community Food Co-op, consider close enough to call regional and, therefore, part of our local food system. And because that 200-mile radius on the co-op’s map also includes Napa and Sonoma counties, and all of those wineries just down the street, I’m willing, if you are, to stretch a bit to outside of our region and make my yearly pilgrimage — maybe with a few friends and a few stops along the way.
Joel Lippert is a member and past volunteer at GBCFC, serves as vice president for On Common Ground – Reno, and is cofounder of the upcoming Truckee Meadows Seed Alliance, our area’s first formal seed-sharing library. For details, visit Ocgreno.org. He also is founder and organizer of The Wa’Sup? … er, Club? — a local group of friends and strangers who meet monthly at local independent restaurants just to dine and talk, because food brings us all to the same table.
The National Heirloom Exposition
Sept. 5 – 7
Sonoma County Fairgrounds
1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, Calif.