This towering stack of gourds and squash loomed over the first annual National Heirloom Exposition. The event, attended by more than 10,000 people, was held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California.

Photograph by Lucia Kaufmann
  • “Oh boy,” a woman proclaims as she approaches a stand at the first National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California. “Free seeds! How fun is this?”

    She is not the only one excited by the exposition, an event co-organized by the Petaluma Seed Bank in nearby Petaluma.

    Attendees are amazed by towering stacks of pumpkins and gourds that rise nearly 5 meters (16 feet) into the air. People taste little-known varieties of fruits and vegetables at one of the exposition’s 250 vendor booths and exhibitor stands. And more than 70 speakers fire up the crowd about heirloom produce. The speakers include Paul Blundell of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and celebrity chef Alice Waters, owner of the famed restaurant Chez Panisse.

    Heirloom plants are varieties cultivated by early farmers. Most heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, meaning they are naturally pollinated by wind, insects, or birds.

    Jere Gettle, owner of the Petaluma Seed Bank, says there is one simple reason for putting on the three-day event: “The overall thing is to bring everyone together around the produce,” he says.

    At a booth nearby, Patrick O’Connor and Mat Rogers of Berkeley, California, discuss the importance of getting seeds into the community. O’Connor is a volunteer at the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), and Rogers is the director of Agrariana, a nonprofit organization focused on urban agriculture and sustainability.

    “I think the whole point is to come to realize that there is not only one type of tomato,” Rogers says.

    As if on cue, Ursula Silva, a neighborhood gardener from Livermore, California, wanders over to the booth with a bag full of more than 70 varieties of tomato seeds. “I’m actually looking for more heat-tolerant tomato seeds,” she says.

    O’Connor and Rogers suggest she visit a booth helmed by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization from Tucson, Arizona. Native Seeds/SEARCH preserves and distributes seeds for plants that grow in the arid Southwest. 

    Organizers estimate the mid-September event drew more than 10,000 people. Visitors came from as far away as Hawaii, Maine, and Canada.

    “Everyone is asking,” Gettle says, “is it going to happen next year?”

    Seed Celebration
    Gourds, as high as an elephant's eye.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    arid Adjective


    chef Noun

    head cook, responsible for menus, food preparation and presentation, and management of staff.

    cultivate Verb

    to encourage the growth of something through work and attention.

    estimate Verb

    to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.

    farmer Noun

    person who cultivates land and raises crops.

    helm Verb

    to lead and manage a ship and ship's crew.

    inaugural Adjective


    nonprofit organization Noun

    business that uses surplus funds to pursue its goals, not to make money.

    pollinate Verb

    to transfer pollen from one part of a flower (the anther) to another (the stigma).

    produce Noun

    agricultural products such as vegetables and fruits.

    seed Noun

    part of a plant from which a new plant grows.

    seed bank Noun

    collection of seeds, preserved in case other specimens are destroyed.

    sustainability Noun

    use of resources in such a manner that they will never be exhausted.

    urban agriculture Noun

    process of growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing food in a city or town.

    vendor Noun

    someone who sells something.