It was a hot day in September, and I found myself standing in front of a pyramid of pumpkins and winter squash, more than 20 feet tall. There were literally hundreds of hard-shelled heirlooms piled up on top of each other – all in unimaginable colors, shapes and sizes.  Some as slithery as snakes, others were oblong and streaked or spotted.

heirloom winter squashNow I pride myself on studying seed catalogs and drooling over exotic vegetables, like many enthusiastic gardeners. But I must admit I’d never seen some of these food varieties in my life.

That’s the point of the Heirloom Seed Expo, which ran Sept. 6 to 8, in Santa Rosa, California. There is a world of vegetables and fruits that we rarely see in our grocery stores.

heirloom tomatoes at heirloom seed expoThe fifth annual National Heirloom Exposition featured “the largest display of heirloom produce ever,” reported the event organizer The Seed Bank in neighboring Petaluma.

It’s easy to believe.

More than 4,000 open-pollinated produce varieties were on display at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Volunteer farmers throughout Northern California grew the heirlooms for the event.

This annual homage to heirlooms was styled like an old-fashioned county fair, and featured 75 speakers on bluegrass music at heirloom seed exposustainable farming, gardening and food issues.

As people ate their lunches or looked at heritage animals, old-time bluegrass music filled the air.

There were vendors, exhibitors and food booths, with a strong emphasis on local food producers and small farming. Seed swaps and seed saving classes were prominently featured, even for kids.

The annual Heirloom Seed Expo is a bonanza for lovers of rare, heritage foods and unusual varieties.

 2014 award-winning ‘Musquee de Maroc’ at heirloom seed expoHundreds of heirlooms were labeled carefully, and special varieties were given extra attention. The 2014 award-winning ‘Musquee de Maroc’ was one example.

Approximately 20,000 people attended the heirloom expo. The day we walked through the event, there were people of all ages.

Children rushed around, dazzled by the colors. Couples walked from table to table, studying the labels. A retired artist sat quietly and sketched. artist painting heirlooms

More Than Just a Pretty Face

The importance of retaining this genetic diversity in our food system is critically important, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties, writes the global organization that fights hunger. “Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species.”

heritage apples at heirloom seed expoParticipatory Conservation is Key

We’ve written before about the importance of retaining genetic diversity in this Q&A with John Torgrimson. He’s the Executive Director of Seed Savers Exchange, and was a guest speaker at the event.

As he explained:

“Participatory conservation is very important to our work. It’s not enough for us to have a seed bank and keep these seeds in a Fort Knox-like setting. We want these seeds to grow and be maintained in different gardens around the country and world.

“Maybe there’s a particular variety that’s not very popular now, but it could solve future problems that we can’t even imagine today. It could be overly wet conditions. Or, it could be extra-long or short growing seasons. So, it’s really about maintaining diversity and genetic heritage.”

Read the story.

Considering the ecological, agricultural, scientific, culinary and cultural importance of these heritage foods, it seems only right to honor heirloom seeds with their own three-day festival.

On second thought, maybe we should be celebrating heirlooms all year long.

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Q&A: John Torgrimson of Seed Savers Exchange