Dispatch from the Heirloom Seed Exposition: The Dirt on Seeds

By Julie Lee

For five years in a row, the Heirloom Seed Exposition has been held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California. The Expo, which occupies all but one of the fairground's buildings, has grown in size each year, bringing together seed producers, seed growers, seed bankers, heirloom livestock breeders, homesteaders, pure food activists and vendors from across the country. Few other events bring together as many overall-wearing folks as this one.

Using Sonoma County as a location gives the advantage of pulling its visitors not only from California's agriculturally-rich Central Valley, but also from a surprising number of individuals who have roots in Orange County and the surrounding Southland, where health food and leading healthy lifestyles are embedded into the culture.


The four-day Expo includes an antique tractor display, gardening demos, chef displays, a rooster crowing contest, a stage featuring fiddle music, and a lineup of speakers who get crowds cheering over topics like soil health, biodiversity and sustainable farming. Food vendors sell everything from elixir-laden teas supposed to improve upon various aspects of your body and mind, raw food meals, and lots of delicious foods, almost all of which are made with locally and organically grown ingredients.

But the real draws are found within the large Demonstration and Display Hall and the Vendor Hall. A towering pile of squash of all shapes and colors stands in the center of the Display Hall, where you will also find giant pumpkins weighing well over 1,000 pounds. Animal and human sculptures assembled from gourds show off the surprising shapes gourds can take on, but that upon viewing may leave visitors teetering on the border of endearment and the bizarre. Fruit and vegetables varieties you have likely never heard of dominate the space, and they look different too: yellow watermelons, black tomatoes, orange mushrooms, and pumpkins whose outer flesh is raised and looks scarred or herniated.

In the adjacent Vendor Hall it is possible to find almost anything related to gardening for sale: tools, books, clothing, towers for vertical growing, compost starters, breathable fabric pots, salves and tinctures made from herbs, aquaponic systems, organizations that champion gardening practices and of course seeds. The seed vendors offer many of the varieties of fruit and vegetables on display in the Display Hall.

There are seed vendors who specialize in Japanese vegetables, Guatemalan species and old varieties with foreign names linking them to the immigrant families who originally carried the seeds here. The pioneers of the heirloom and organic seed movement are all here, giving buyers the incredible opportunity to talk to the people who grew the seed. Every seed vendor was graciously taking the time to share information from those who wished to buy their seeds. Matching the variety of seeds was the diversity of the seed packaging, which ranged from a simple labeling to beautifully designed artworks created by commissioned artists.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company (based in Missouri) organizes the Expo. They also run the nearby Petaluma Seed Bank. The word “heirloom” is usually associated with flavorful tomatoes, those found seasonally in supermarkets where the contrast to the uniformly round, red and waxy tomatoes available year-round is obvious. But heirloom types extend well beyond tomatoes to include any plant or animal grown or bred for several generations from saved seed or stock. Heirloom plants are open-pollinated by insects who are adapted to a range of plant diversity. Heirloom farmers retain the strongest, tastiest, and most insect-and disease-resistant seeds from their plants and use them to produce new crops of equal quality.

Which brings us to the “M” word. Throughout the Expo on T-shirts, overheard in conversations and broadcast by the public presenters were the subtle (and not so subtle) calls to band together and fight big agribusiness, specifically the Monsanto Company. Monsanto is infamous for its production of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, which are patented and for which they hold intellectual property rights to as well. The introduction of GMO seed to markets is often readily accepted by farmers the world over, as they provide a product that is seemingly less expensive, superior in quality and in production rates. Pure-seed activists argue that the use of GMO seeds not only eradicates the diversity in food made available to consumers, but that in the end they are ecologically damaging, that they are harmful to farmers and people through pollution of land, and that the foods are less nourishing for people to eat.

What exactly is in GMO grade seed and food is unknown and has given rise to speculation that the rise of birth defects is linked to their contents. Even those that may not take issue with the use of GMOs should find this troublesome: in California as throughout the United States, there are several seed laws on the books that criminalize the act of saving and/or trading one's own seeds grown from their own plants. In California, the Secretary of State has the ability to authorize and amend a list of seeds that are suitable to grow. Those interested in preserving and cataloging seed varieties in seed libraries and universities have especially felt the threat of these laws and in some cases have been shut down through the federal Seed Act of 2004.

Superseding all issues at the Heirloom Seed Expo, including the drought, was the frustration with (some would say illegality of) the actions of big agribusinesses. Made available to every attendee was the free 20-page newspaper titled Seed Satyagraha (Civil Disobedience To End SeedSlavery). Satyagraha, defined in the paper as the force of truth, was a tactic of change used by Gandhi. Without a doubt, the Heirloom Seed Expo is a gathering point for activists ready to fight for what they feel is right. But more than that it is a place for people who are interested in growing and eating food; really, really, delicious, healthy and sometimes kind of funny looking food.

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