A Message of Hope in Difficult Times – The National Heirloom Exposition Continues to Inspire
Seedsman Jere Gettle and his Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company crew have pulled off another of their annual paeans to heirloom produce and the food movement, as the fifth National Heirloom Exposition took over the Sonoma County fairgrounds in Santa Rosa for three straight days beginning September 8. For three days the fairgrounds were transformed, taking on the look and leisurely pace of a rural country fair that belied its locale amid a city of 172,000.
A display of old farm vehicles and equipment lined the grass as I arrived at the fairgrounds, and suddenly fiddlers seemed to spontaneously proliferate on the music stage, popping up like a bunch of alfalfa sprouts reaching for the sun.
I immediately bumped into Dave Kaiser, probably the most recognizable of the Baker Creek crew from Missouri, besides Jere Gettle himself.
Clad in a worn straw hat and overalls that have definitely been around the farm a few years, Dave is a true people-person, a handsome fella with a scruffy beard and easy grin who’s been a part of Gettle’s company since it began. Dave recalls Jere as a young lad and neighbor in Mansfield, Missouri who loved to show off his garden and daydream about selling heirloom seeds some day.
The star of many a glorious full-color photo in the company’s popular annual seed catalog over the years, Dave’s easy-going, generous and welcoming manner – so complimentary to Jere’s own – has helped set the tone for the Expo since its inception.
The Heirloom Expo’s more than a country fair though. It’s also a trade show for heirloom and specialty seed folk, growers and family farmers of all kinds, a livestock show for those who raise them, a three-day seminar for horticulturists and rally for sustainable food and agriculture advocates. Ted-x for the dirt-in-their-nails crowd. It’s all these and more.
Farmers, ranchers, gardeners, chefs, and foodies abounded. As is the case every year, they roamed the exhibit halls with deliberation, their frequent “oohs” and “ahhhs” of wonder drifting up to the rafters at the taste of an heirloom tomato or the sight of a massive tower of cucurbits or a 1,725 pound pumpkin. That was Mr. Westervelt’s grand prize winner in the Giant Pumpkin Contest.
Mr. Westervelt & his 1,725 pound winner of the Giant Pumpkin Prize. Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
Accompanied by Petaluma Grange Lecturer Connie Madden (also of Oasis Community Farm), the first thing we noticed upon our arrival at this year’s Expo was that we were just in time for the seed swap, which seemed appropriate.
The seed swap was a simple affair – a long row of tables lined up next to one of the speaker halls, the tables covered with hundreds of varieties of heirloom flowers, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers and most other kinds of produce I could think of. The tables were crowded with dozens of folks browsing the little seed packets, dropping off a couple of one variety or another that they no longer needed, while picking up a few they could use. No money changed hands – just trade.
The swap had the excited air of a child’s treasure hunt, with seed swappers of all ages as the giddy children, expectantly combing through the packets in search of unique treasures.
Always excitable when it comes to talking seed, I imagined Jere Gettle would be quite pleased to see so many people inspired to grow their own, be they farmer or grower of flowers on an apartment balcony.
The speaker schedule at the National Heirloom Exposition has always featured among the most remarkable lineups of practical, inspirational, and educational presenters assembled anywhere, and the 2015 lineup was no exception. With speakers in three different venues you sometimes you have to make some difficult choices, and it’s impossible to see everyone you’d like.
Connie and I sat down to listen to the fiery oratory of Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumer Association, and I immediately became enthralled by his presentation, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture: Reversing Climate Change and Rural Poverty.”
Unfortunately for me I completely missed Bob McFarland of the California Grange and his talk on grassroots activism and advocacy. There’s something of a Grange Renaissance going on out here in the West, in support of family farmers, and McFarland and the local Granges have been helping show the way.
Luckily the Expo takes place in an area that’s awash in talented, truly innovative farmers, growers and food system advocates who are already growing the elements of a sustainable food and ag system. So, in between presentations you can bump into an amazing array of folks to talk to about what you’ve been missing elsewhere.
In the space of just a few minutes’ time on Thursday I saw or spoke with Zeno Swijtink of Slow Food Russian River, Evan Wiig of the Farmer’s Guild, Gowan Batist of Fortunate Farm, Elizabeth & Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm, Tiffany Renee of the Petaluma Grange, Jess Flood of Bloomfield Organics and her partner, serial innovator Nick Papadopolous, founder of CropMobster.
Masters of permaculture and biointensive farming, Toby Hemenway and John Jeavons, respectively – among the most popular educators in their fields to be found anywhere – hosted workshops on successive days.
There were seed talks galore, addressing the subject from a variety of practical as well as policy angles. What to plant here in the North Bay soon, how to save seeds, and how to use heirloom varieties as troubleshooting tools were among the many topics.
A presence at each Heirloom Expo thus far, either remotely or in person, seed activist, environmentalist and sage Vandana Shiva is clearly an inspiration to many of the people who organized and attended this year’s event.
This year Shiva was featured prominently three evenings in a row, speaking primarily on the topics of seed sovereignty and the burgeoning effort worldwide to support small-scale farmers who use agroecological methods as a means of increasing crop yields and soil health, while mitigating the effects of climate change.
Shiva was clearly speaking to the converted at the Expo, giving presentations frequently punctuated by outbursts of applause and encouragement. A panel concluding the three-day event that featured Shiva, Jim Gerritsen of Wood Prairie Farm, and Dave Murphy and Lisa Stokke of Food Democracy Now occasionally had the feel of some of the Southern Baptist congregations of my youth, with the ‘amens’ replaced by a littany of anti-Monsanto hollers.
Vandana Shiva and the National Heirloom Expo published a remarkable manifesto for the event on the state of seed and the food system in a perilous age. Seed Satyagraha (Civil Disobedience to End Seed Slavery), a free twenty page newspaper distributed to attendees, is well worth a read and can be found on Shiva’s website and at the Petaluma Seed Bank.
Three straight days of 100 + temperatures likely helped keep things pretty mellow during this year’s Expo, coming as it was during the tail end of a memorably hot summer of 2015. Among a bunch of attendees, vendors and speakers I spoke with, there seemed a universal belief that the crowds were a bit smaller this year, and the heat was to blame. Still, the crowd was believed to be over 15,000 over three days.
The highlight of this year’s Heirloom Expo was undoubtedly the repeated focus of so many speakers, vendors and exhibitors on regenerative agricultural solutions. Organic Consumers’ Ronnie Cummins suggested we circumvent some folks’ resistance to the word “revolution” and call it “regeneration.”
At a time when drought and climate change urgently demand our attention and our burning of fossil fuels must come to an end, various methods of agroecology and agroforestry, carbon farming, no-till farming and many other methods offer both high yields and hope. These topics were widely discussed by a large number of the over 100 speakers at the Expo.
I can think of no more exciting and hopeful note to close the three-day event than Petaluma’s own Erin Axelrod & collaborator Ariel Greenwood speaking on the extraordinary potential for feeding people and the soil promised by carbon farming and a holistic approach to agriculture. It would be well worth your time to take a deeper look at these subjects and the work of this innovative new generation of ag innovators.
Much gratitude goes out to Jere Gettle, the Baker Creek gang and everyone else who participated in this year’s National Heirloom Expo. Gettle’s grow-your-own message of hope has been evident in the North Bay since at least 2008, when he opened his first seed branch outside Missouri in the old Sonoma County Bank building in Petaluma. This highly symbolic move, coming just one week after General Motors declared bankruptcy amidst the economic collapse that became known as the Great Recession, combined with the inspiration embodied by the National Heirloom Exposition, remains an inspiring beacon of hope in difficult times.