As a chef for 30 years, Matt Millea has been to his share of farmer's markets and produce stands.

All of that is small potatoes compared to what greeted the Big Sur resident Tuesday at the Sonoma County Fairgounds in Santa Rosa.

"It's like a beauty pageant for gnarly old vegetables!" Millea said.

The National Heirloom Exposition has been called many things, including a gardener's delight, a learning faire and a forum for anti-GMO activism.

But at it's edible heart, the event, which continues today and Thursday, is an inspiration, especially for newbies such as Millea.

"I'm blown away," he said. "I've been going to farmer's markets since I started cooking, and there are varieties of things here I haven't seen anywhere."

The expo features 4,000 varieties of produce on display, more than 350 food vendors and a slew of speakers on topics ranging from "Whole Farm Planning for On-Farm Fertility," to "Seed Saving 101."

A full schedule of speakers and events can be found at <a href="http://www.theheirloomexpo.com/">www.theheirloomexpo.com</a>.

Nancy Webb, an amateur gardener from Davis, said the expo was "like having 1,000 catalogs in real life. It gives you a lot of ideas."

Retired doctors Susan Piernan and her husband, David Benefiel, who own Paradox Farms outside Sebastopol, brought bags to fill with seeds. The couple also made an impromptu purchase of two Golden Penciled Hamburg chickens.

Benefiel said the expo reflected a "genetic diversity in agriculture," in contrast to what he called the "wasteland" of modern commercial farming.

The event's political theme was evidenced by a dunk tank stationed near the entrance. "Strike a blow against GMO!" stated a sign on the contraption.

Heirloom foods generally are those that genetically predate modern agriculture industry. Heirloom plants, for example, are the result of open pollination, not the grafts, cuttings and genetic manipulations that have fueled large-scale farming and limited variety in the process.

At the exhibit of heritage breeds of poultry and livestock, Bob Anderson of Portland removed bantam chickens from their cages one at a time to describe the bird's features.

Anderson is in the final stages of becoming a licensed judge of the American Poultry Association.

The role involves little to no money and a lot of travel. "He's doing it for the groupies," said Walt Leonard, a poultry judge from Santa Rosa who observed Anderson's oral presentation.

More than 15,000 people are expected to attend the three-day event. Tickets are $10 each day for adults, or $25 for three days. Kids 17 and under are free.

The non-profit event helps fund school gardens.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.