The mountain of brilliantly colored pumpkins and gourds towered above our heads, reaching for the ceiling of the giant exposition hall. They were all heirlooms, old-fashioned varieties whose seeds had been handed down through generations. Outside the hall, amidst the sounds of country music and crowing roosters , thousands of people from around the world enjoyed the sights and flavors of the National Heirloom Exposition.
The not-for-profit event centers around “the pure food movement, heirloom fruits and vegetables, and anti-GMO activism.” Last year’s Heirloom Expo was the first of its kind in the country. This year, the Expo swings into its second, even bigger year at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California., from September 11-13.
Preserving heritage seed stock and the right to wholesome food is the Expo’s focus. “Our foremost goal is always to showcase and educate,” said event founder Jere Gettle, owner of The Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company. “We want people to see, taste, and feel how exciting pure food is.”
Jere is a man who knows a little something about wholesome food. Homeschooled on his family’s ranches in the Boise Valley and Missouri, he was just 17 when he started a tiny seed business in his bedroom. Now, with his wife, Emilee, he operates stores in Mansfield, Missouri, Petaluma, California, and Wethersfield, Connecticut. His excursions around the world to rediscover old plant varieties inspired The New York Times to call him “the Indiana Jones of seeds.”
The concept for the Expo emerged when Jere, Emilee, and friends perused old seed catalogs, learning about gardening expositions from the 1880s through the 1920s. “Farmers and gardeners would get together for something like a county fair, only bigger,” said Jere. “We thought, ‘Why can’t we bring back the old-fashioned fair, but on a grander scale?”
And grand it is. Billing itself as “The World’s Largest Pure Food Fair,” the Expo showcases over 3,000 varieties of produce, rare fruit exhibits, cooking, gardening, and beekeeping demonstrations, crafts and heritage farm animal breeds. You can learn how to milk a goat, discover turkeys with iridescent feathers as beautiful as a peacock’s, and meet the chickens, geese, or ducks that lay your favorite eggs. The Giant Pumpkin Contest is a huge draw, with many prize specimens weighing over 1,000 pounds.
Among the 300 exhibits, crafts play a featured role. “A lot of the vendors display crafts they make on the farm,” said Jere. Exhibits include paintings of farms and produce, local dyes and fibers, spinning and weaving, fruit and vegetable carving, and “crafts of all kinds.”
Last year’s Expo drew over 10,000 people from around the country and the world. Jere is modest about estimating attendance for this year, saying only, “Oh, there could be more, I suppose.” He stays focused on the core values of the event: “People come to this from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter where they are coming from or where they are going. What matters is that they care about what food used to look like and taste like, and that they want to preserve it and bring it back.”
National Heirloom Exposition
Date: September 11-13, 2012
Location: Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Santa Rosa California
Admission: Adults $10 for one day, $25 for three days; kids under 17 free.
Jere invites interested members of the Etsy community to submit art for the event by writing to email@example.com.
Karen Brown is an award-winning designer and creative director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. Her work has been included in the Smithsonian Institution and Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, and on Today on NBC. She believes that the handmade movement is a fundamental force for transforming society and the economy.