Santa Rosa, CA -- Billing itself as the "The World's Pure Food Fair," The Heirloom Expo is centered on promoting heirloom fruits and vegetables and raising awareness around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply. With speakers, vendors, and activities for kids and grown-ups alike, the Expo just wrapped up its third year at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
A walk through the Expo reveals its diverse mission: On one end of the hall is a towering pyramid of colorful gourds; in the middle, an engrossing talk by environmental activist Vandana Shiva about biodiversity; and at the far end, a rooster crowing contest.
"The reason we started this event was to bring awareness to the issues around the pure food movement," said Heirloom Expo director Paul Wallace. "Dr. Vandana Shiva said that of all the fairs and expos she attends around the world, we have it all. We closed the loop--we bring scientists, farmers, chefs, and gardeners all under one roof."
Indeed, with 300 vendors, 100 speakers, workshops, chef demos, and displays of 3,000 varieties of heirloom veggies and fruit, as well as feathered and furry livestock, there's something for everybody.
The Expo is put on by Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which has its roots in Mansfield, MO. Founder Jeremiah "Jere" Gettle has been growing and saving seeds since he was a kid and started his first seed catalog in 1998, when he was only 17 years old. Baker Creek now encompasses not only its seed collection and accompanying sumptuous catalog and magazine, but three historical brick-and-mortar seed stores as well. Petaluma Seed Bank, in Petaluma, CA is housed in an actual 1920s bank. Baker Creek headquarters in Mansfield, MO is a resurrected pioneer village on a historic homestead a stone's throw from Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. And recently, Baker Creek purchased the historic seed company Comstock, Ferre & Co in Wethersfield, CT, which is being restored to a living history museum dedicated to agriculture.
"Heirloom seeds bring history alive and connect past, present, and future together like nothing else can," says Gettle. Yet beyond picturesque still-lifes of unique vegetables and lovely merchants featured in lifestyle sections of the Baker Creek magazines, there is a very modern issue that Baker Creek is trying to address: the problem of (GMOs) in our food supply. Central to the Heirloom Expo and Gettle's work is raising awareness around the danger of GMOs in seed gene pools and the importance of labeling food grown from them.
Promoting heirloom seeds is contrary to the aims of GMO companies. Heirloom seeds are primarily open-pollinated, which means anyone can grow, save, and distribute the seed––an antithesis to organizations like Monsanto, which closely guards its patents and forces farmers to re-buy seed every year.
At the Expo, there were plenty of GMO exhibits, education, and dialogue, including keynote speaker Shiva’s talk, addressing a standing room-only crowd of 1,500 about seed sovereignty and food security. "Globalized industrialized food is not cheap: it is too costly for the Earth, for the farmers, for our health," she said.
FruitGuys head buyer Rebecca North also attended the Expo, and says, "The Heirloom Expo is a crucial event for the times we are living in, where saving, breeding, and planting heirloom seeds is deemed by some corporations to be a crime. The Expo is an all-hands-on-deck mobilization to educate ourselves and each other about our food, those who grow it for us, and those who are trying to control it. Each seed holds a history––a lineage to tradition, culture, nourishment, and memories. We should do all we can to support non-GMO seed and our right to save and preserve this heritage."
Among the other notable speakers were food historian William Woys Weavers; environmental attorney Andrew Kimbrell; and Ronnie Cummins, the founder of Organic Consumers Association. And although some of the topics were serious, there was plenty of light-hearted fun, too, with music, contests, and exhibitors that gave the Expo more of a country fair ambiance than a trade show vibe. With the number of Expo attendees at 17,500 (an increase of 20 percent over last year), it appears that the Expo is filling a niche for people increasingly interested in food, sustainability, and the environment.