Each year in September growers and seed enthusiasts from across the country converge on Santa Rosa California to learn what’s going on with various seed projects and initiatives, to be inspired by the abundant harvest on display, and to rub elbows with the movers and shakers in the organic growing and homesteading arenas. Billed as the world’s largest pure food fair (with added bragging rights for one of the largest displays of heritage produce assembled anywhere), the Heirloom Expo offers attendees three days (9am to 9pm, always on a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) packed with speakers and exhibitors, all of whose roles fall within the food and agriculture domain: farmers, chefs, seed stewards, seed librarians, activists, researchers, authors, educators, and YouTube personalities. At a cost of $30 for the full three days, the Expo remains a solid value no matter how you cut it.
My wife and I really enjoyed this year’s event. It’s the first time we’ve attended the show since launching Silicon Valley Seeds. (Our initial visit to the Expo was back in 2014, when we drove up with a bunch of friends who, like us, maintained garden plots over at the Benton teaching garden, a garden space operated as part of the Santa Clara Adult Education system. All that to say that we have a basic understanding of how the Expo has evolved over the past few years).
Among our favorite presenters in 2019? Jon Jackson of Comfort Farms in Georgia, Ben Cohen of Small House Farm (someone of particular interest to us here at Silicon Valley Seeds because of his involvement in bringing over 70 seed libraries online throughout the state of Michigan), Jessica and Miah of Roots and Refuge in central Arkansas (Jess has posted an awesome video summary of the 2019 Heirloom Expo produce exhibits), and Matt Powers, the Permaculture Student, a passionate educator who spoke about an intriguing way to make use of the Earth’s oceans to address climate issues related to CO2 levels within the environment.
A Breakdown of How the Expo Works
Activities at the Heirloom Expo can be thought of as being divided into four general categories (this is the way I see it; your mileage may vary…). The four rough buckets I refer to as the sales room, the produce room, the learning rooms, and the outdoor fun. I’d be tempted to include a fifth category, that being kid fun, for those exhibits and activities (and now an entire hall) dedicated specifically to youngsters, which the organizers do a great job of engaging with.
Ok, so a little bit on each of these areas.
The main exhibit hall, the sales room, is the starting point; it’s where guests enter each day. The space is jam packed with exhibitor companies, both big and small. A good number of these are seed companies. (Hey, it’s an heirloom festival, and folks who want to grow heirloom plants will be needing heirloom seed, right?). Among the largest of the seed companies offering products is the one responsible for bringing the entire event to life, namely Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. A couple of other large seed suppliers on the floor include Epic Seeds and Hudson Valley Seed Company, but again there are a ton of seed suppliers to choose from. A good many of these seed companies offer special event pricing for seeds purchased by Expo visitors. In addition to seed, attendees are treated to a wide range of other product offerings, everything from books, potting containers, and soils to greenhouses and hydroponic systems. If you’re looking to buy something, you should spend time in this building.
The next building over houses what I think of as the produce room. This is where one finds the impressive pyramid of squash, as well as table upon table filled with an abundant assortment of produce, everything from squash, tomato, and pepper (hot and sweet varieties), to melon, apple, carrot, and corn. The watermelon tasting area is always a popular spot, and most visitors enjoy stopping over to take a gander at the giant pumpkins on display (the 2019 winner weighed in at just will find a wide range of offerings here, everything from paintings and sculptures to carved squash and laser seed etchings. For those more interested in flowers, there are the tables next to a wall proclaiming “Dahlias Galore”. What might visitors find there? If you’re looking to view or taste produce, this is the building you’re looking for.
Of greatest benefit to growers (in my view, anyway) are the offerings to be found in the learning rooms, of which there are three: Kraft Hall, Garrett Hall, and the Roundtable. As I’ve said, the Expo provides attendees access to the movers and shakers in the organic food arena, people whose names we find on the books we love to read, folks whose YouTube channels we really enjoy watching. I’ve already mentioned some of our favorite presenters who spoke at this year’s festival, but what I’d like to stress is that the event coordinators continue to do an outstanding job of offering something for everyone. Case in point: I’m not a “food activist” by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m not all that interested in hearing about what’s going on within activist circles. But that’s me. Those who are interested in such topics can find a nice selection of speakers and discussions to choose from. And that’s a good thing, because while there are a lot of angles from which to view things, the core subject matter is always the same, namely the growing of healthful, organic produce in sustainable ways and seeing to it that adequate levels of biodiversity exist within our food system in order to ensure that the system remains robust and resilient. So if you’re looking to learn something from those in the know, you should be spending a good chunk of your time in these buildings.
Last but certainly not least, what I refer to as outdoor fun. This relates to anything and everything taking place outdoors, from the food being served at a nice selection of food booths to the entertainment offerings taking place at the outdoor stage and the minstrel piano. This is also where the excellent seed swap takes place, where the kid’s hay bail runabout is, and where some of interesting meetings take place. (We attended just such an informal meeting, one for those interested in establishing a seed library). If you’re looking to munch on good eats or tap your feet to good tunes, you should be spending time outside.
Growing Strong Roots: An Annual Event To Look Forward To
Past year’s activities included animal topics, things like sheep shearing and how to carve up a chicken. While these have fallen away, organizers have done an excellent job of bolstering the offerings of things designed for the younger crowd. Yes, the littlest of our growers now have an entire hall of exhibits and activities designed specifically for them. Based on the number of elementary school kids we saw in attendance this year (we actually witnessed busloads arriving one morning), the future is looking bright.
It’s also great to witness the expansion of the seed swap. What started off as a couple of hours of people looking through seed packets spread across a few tables has grown into three full days of non-stop seed sharing, which is to say the sharing of seed the way it’s supposed to be done, with seeds that have been lovingly grown and harvested by someone, and that someone being available to answer questions, offer growing tips and advice, provide encouragement, and build relationship with fellow growers. Regular seed exchanges being one of the things we at Silicon Valley Seeds are trying to establish here in the south bay, it is very encouraging to see a swap that’s done properly.
The National Heirloom Expo continues to support gardeners — both young and old, whether here in California, somewhere else in North America, or another location in the world — by providing a time and place to gather, learn, share, and grow. For that we are extremely grateful to all those involved in seeing to the show’s success, especially the many organizers, vendors and speakers.
To all involved, we say bravo people. Bravo!