Uproar over Sonoma County’s handling of National Heirloom Exposition

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Vendors and exhibitors at a popular natural foods event contend they were harassed and unfairly targeted by Sonoma County health inspectors who cracked down this week with fees and fines, as well as permit requirements.

Organizers of the National Heirloom Exposition at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds said previous health inspectors were positive and supportive of the three-day event, which ended Thursday. But this year was different.

Organic apples donated to expo attendees required a tasting permit to be given away along with other produce, according to organizers, who said approximately two dozen vendors were hit with fees and fines totaling hundreds of dollars, and as much as $750.

Organizers said the treatment by health inspectors threatens the future of the Heirloom Exposition, which draws more than 15,000 people. They said it makes it challenging for the participation of backyard farmers and hobbyists who can’t give away an apple or tomato without a permit.

“We feel we’re not really wanted,” said farming entrepreneur Jere Gettle, who co-founded the Heirloom Festival and the Petaluma Seed Bank. “It’s taken the heart out of the event.”

Dubbed the “World’s Pure Food Fair,” the nonprofit exposition celebrates traditional crops, food, seeds, poultry and livestock. Small gardeners and large farmers have fruits and vegetables for show and tasting.

Participants complained that vendors of sealed packages of seeds, grain and flour were “harassed” for selling food without a license.

County health officials said they are just following the law.

“Our environmental health inspectors visited for a required inspection as mandated by the California Retail Food Code,” said Dr. Stephan Betz, director of the Department of Health Services, in a prepared statement. “California law requires permitting of food vendors, including those at a temporary food facility, who are giving away food or selling packaged or unpackaged goods.”

He added that inspectors did not shut down any vendor during the exposition.But Gettle said a few vendors appeared to have left as a result, and at least a dozen were fined. He said county inspectors in the past might require people who served cut fruits to have a permit, but not whole fruits like they did this year.

“They reinterpreted the law after all these years,” he asserted, adding that it seemed less about health concerns and more about collecting money.

“I was outraged,” said Josh Cunnings, a Rohnert Park man who was not singled out by health inspectors but has participated in the expo for five years, selling a “soil nourishing tonic.”

“I’m sure the health department’s job is to ensure the citizenry’s public health,” he said. “In my humble opinion, they stepped way over the line.”

He said the event is intended as an acknowledgment that “health is our only wealth,” and there is nothing unhealthy in giving away a free apple or packet of seeds.

Efren Carrillo, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said he fielded numerous emails and a few phone calls from expo participants complaining about the inspections. Carrillo is meeting Monday with health officials as well as expo organizers and Farm Trails representatives to gather more information about what occurred.

“I don’t know the full details and what we need to correct,” he said.

But he said the county and health officials are committed to being “very supportive of our ag partners.”

Gettle said the diverse event draws people from many other states and outside the country including, “hippie types and Mennonites” — all gathered to celebrate food.

Organizers say proceeds above expenses from the expo are donated to local school and educational garden projects.

Gettle said this year, 160 pallets of food from the Heirloom Exposition were donated to food pantries, schools and churches, along with 90,000 pounds of watermelon and squash.He said that if participants don’t feel they can operate without feeling safe and being able to afford it, the South Bay and Los Angeles are options for relocation. But he said Sonoma County is one of the most supportive for locally grown and organic food.

“We wanted to stay here. We built such a network,” he said.

Carrillo also wants to ensure the event stays.

“This is an exposition that draws national and international attention,” he said, calling it a “homegrown” event. “My hope is we are able to keep it here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas

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