“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.
arid
Adjective

dry.

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

first.

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.

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.