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The first-ever National Heirloom Exposition kicked off Tuesday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa with giant pumpkins and miniature goats, crowing roosters, acoustic bluegrass and vibrant piles of produce grown from seeds originating in 50 countries.

The crowd for the start of the three-day event — estimated at more than 4,000 — was equally diverse, hailing from throughout California, the nation and the world.

"It's all we planned for and even more," said organizer Jeremiath "Jere" Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and The Seed Bank in Petaluma. "The exhibit halls filled up at the last minute, and the speeches this morning were standing-room-only. We plan on it growing through the week."

Touted as a "World's Fair" of the heirloom food movement, the nonprofit event continues from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and Thursday. Today's activities will focus on kids and school groups, with a charity auction from 5 to 7 p.m. to benefit school gardens.

Heirloom foods are generally those products that genetically predate the industrialization of agriculture. 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.

A giant tower of pumpkins and squash that greeted visitors at the Hall of Flowers threatened to topple over in a riot of green, yellow and orange. The tower was built by Mac Condill of the Great Pumpkin Patch and Homestead Seeds in Arthur, Ind., who erected a similar tower on the White House lawn last fall.

"Just walking in here and seeing that pile of squash, I got teary-eyed," said Ellen Baker of Epicenter Farm in Watsonville. "Here, we can actually buy some food, and it will be healthy for us. Our fair sells margarine on a stick."

Riding the wave of the eat-local movement, the exposition attracted both serious farmers and backyard amateurs, all eager to network and learn from the 70 speakers, dozen films, industry vendors and artisan producers.

"In one hour, I've already connected with three people and learned something about growing an orchard," said Sydney LaRose of Prunedale, who farms row crops on 10 acres near Salinas. "Sustainable farmers are so generous with their knowledge."

According to Gettle, the exposition is the first of its kind in the U.S., bringing together high-profile speakers, such as Alice Waters of Berkeley's Edible School Yard (speaking at 7 tonight<NO1><NO>), with heritage chicken, pig and goat breeders.

"This is the first event where we combine everything — chickens and sheep, pumpkins and tomatoes, activists in the food movement and 30 different seed companies," Gettle said. <QA0>

"We want to promote awareness of safer and more diverse food."

"When I saw all the parking lots were full, I knew it was going to be OK," said Jeff Mall of Zin restaurant in Healdsburg, who helped organize the chef's demonstrations in the Hall of Flowers. I" love all the seed companies."

Holly Hosterman of Arcata, founder and creative director of Holly Yashi Jewelry, attended the expo with her husband, Martin Ludtke.

"My goal today is to learn as much as we can about heirloom seeds and growing," said Ludtke, an avid gardener and beekeeper. "It's about keeping it as local as you can, so you build community."

Urban gardener Tom Myers of San Jose brought a list of the seeds he needs for his winter garden: fava beans, beets, carrots and dill.

"My wife only buys local, and we try to eat within 100 miles," he said. "We're staying on a working farm in Sebastopol."

Vendors sharing space at the Grace Pavilion came from every corner of the North Bay: from Sonoma Valley Worm Farms to McEvoy Ranch of Petaluma, from the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center to the Napa Valley Tea Company.

Bryan Hohnstein of Mix Garden Materials in Healdsburg, who grows produce for restaurants such as Barndiva in Healdsburg, said that the exposition appears to be a good fit for Sonoma County.

"It's nothing new here," he said. "The rest of the nation is catching up with us."