Heirloom Exposition dazzles with plant variety (w/video)

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Reaction to the mountain of colorful, weirdly shaped squash and pumpkins he’d assembled at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds was enough for fifth-generation Illinois farmer Mac Condill to know Tuesday that he had done his job well.

As a exhibitor and presenter at the fourth annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, Condill’s goal, he said, was to showcase the diversity of the pumpkin family and highlight its historical role in feeding humankind.

Scores of visitors photographed his dazzling display of bright, bumpy and curly-cued squash, marveling at its variety in voices loud enough for him to hear.

“Mission accomplished,” said Condill, who grows 400 kinds of pumpkins, squash and gourds at his family farm in Arthur, Ill. “I think they’re an under-utilized, under-appreciated vegetable.”

The three-day expo is a celebration of odd and beautiful fruits of the earth that have proven themselves over generations to be worthy of preservation in a world where mass production, food science and corporate control threaten selection and genetic purity, organizers said.

“Heirlooms are all about survival of the fittest, versus going into a lab and creating some concoction,” Condill said.

“Food plants with stories,” is how Pennsylvania food historian, author and seed producer Williams Woys Weaver put it Tuesday. “And that’s what makes it a great tool for educating kids.”

The event, which runs through Thursday, drew about 18,000 people last year, from all over the country and outside it, as well. Watsonville pumpkin farmer Jeff Fiorovich of Crystal Bay Farm lovingly called such attendees “seed geeks.”

One of them, Sebastopol resident and 30-year organic gardener George Capone III, lauded the work of those who seek to preserve “the old seeds,” tying them to the prior pioneering efforts of Sonoma County’s most famous horticulturist. “This is the fruits of entrepreneurs who — not in a business way — are trying to save them before this stuff is lost,” Capone said in a heavy Boston accent. “This is the fruits of Luther Burbank’s work.”

Attendees Buck Hulse and his wife, Donna, residents of Munising on the shore of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, have to start their seeds indoors before June comes around, bringing temperatures warm enough to transplant seedlings outside. The couple vowed a year ago to make a trip to the expo to see what might be possible given a more accommodating growing season.

Pointing to a tantalizing display of plump red, orange and golden tomatoes, Buck Hulse said, “I look at these and I think, ‘Oh, THAT’S how those are supposed to look.’”

San Jose resident Raji Ravichandran and a friend strolled through long tables filled with scores of foreign and familiar squash and melons, many larger than most people are accustomed to seeing. The spikes, ridges and bumps made some look like some tentacled sea creatures.

“It’s amazing. It’s really amazing,” said Ravichandran.

Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Mo., and coordinator of the exposition, said he and some other seed collectors were attending a Manhattan seed auction when the idea for the Santa Rosa event first germinated.

The motive was to provide an opportunity for growers to display the variety of fruits and vegetables that can be grown, Gettle said, and to give consumers, gardeners and farmers a chance to see them up close at a time of burgeoning interest in locally grown, organic foods, sustainable production and food security.

A kind of “hybrid industry event and old-time fair,” he wanted to model it after the grand agricultural expositions of the late 19th century, “when people were really into diversity of crops,” Gettle said.

Sonoma County made an ideal setting because of its climate and connection to the Petaluma Seed Bank, the only West Coast outlet for Baker Creek seeds, and the chance to connect with interested folks so far away from Missouri, he said.

The event has blossomed into an opportunity to attend lectures and demonstrations, sample, see and purchase a variety of produce seeds, and marvel in nature’s varied creations.

Diane Taylor of Placerville who attended her third exposition with her husband and two adult daughters, said everything she does in her garden is something she picked up at such events.

“I always learn something new,” she said.

The National Heirloom Exposition runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through Thursday.

Admission is $10 a day for adults, and free for kids 17 and younger.

More information is available at

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or

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