My Journey to The National Heirloom Expo

I drove home from Santa Rosa with a heart full of the love people shared, a growler of Blind Pig, case of Pliny the Elder, and a head full of knowledge and ideas. I reminisced on the day, only two and a half years ago, that I had planted something in the ground for the first time. We were in Nicaragua making some home improvements at Casa del Sur when R gave me a shovel and told me to plant a baby palm somewhere. I just stood there, motionless and perplexed with a small shovel dangling in one hand and a potted plant balancing in the other, trying to process what he wanted me to do. In the past, I had had plants and herb gardens because they came that way, but never in my life, although having played in farms, had I ever planted anything. R was just as confused as I was since he had always pegged me as being an “earthy” kind of gal- and he wasn’t wrong, I just hadn’t had the opportunity in life to fully bloom. That was the day, an intensely sultry and sunny one, that I first put my hands into the soil and, of course, much like a small child, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Since then, I have embraced this vital missing link to my life, consistently researching and learning about all aspects of growing, and therefore, two and half years after my initial induction to planting, here I am, creating and managing a half acre urban farm and attending the National Heirloom Expo.

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I finally decided to go to the Expo after staring at the ad for months in our Baker Creek seed catalogs. Since our harvests at Casa del Norte have become overwhelming for just two people, I felt like we needed some kind of direction. Day after day, while harvesting more tomatoes, drying more figs, roasting more chiles, painting the house even, I would ask myself, “What are we doing?” “What am I doing?” Alone, on the way to the expo, after an anxious sleepless night, I kept asking myself the same questions about my trip and if it wasn’t for the nonrefundable hotel I paid in full, I very well might have turned around in Valencia and headed back home to L.A. However, I drove onward, remembering my intentions: attend speaker presentations to gain more knowledge, view the exhibits, meet like minded people, and at the very least, eat some good wholesome food and visit Russian River Brewery. Not only were all of my intentions realized, I got more out of my little trip than I could have possibly imagined!

The National Heirloom Expo

The event was held in Santa Rosa, CA, in the picturesque Sonoma County Fairgrounds surrounded by rolling hills and tree lined valleys. The weather was comfortably hot with a radiant blue-sky backdrop. Smiling people of all ages, and all sock colors, from Orange County to Washington state, roamed the grounds. A fresh, sweet aroma permeated the air, and a twang of a fiddle or singer’s voice could be heard from the performance stage as participants gathered at booths, exhibits, and picnic tables.

Ticket prices were $15 a day, or $30 for a three-day pass, which, naturally, I took advantage of.   Kids were free. Event parking was available across the way for $7 a day- I narrowly avoided the $10 lot on Wednesday, the day of the Veteran’s Hall Farmer’s Market just on the other side of the freeway.

Vendor prices were not cheap, and rightly so, after all, the product quality was superb and the food was fresh, organic, and delicious.

Food Courtyard

Food vendors ranged from kombucha bars and ice cream tubs to Thai dishes and Greek bites. I opted for an all-natural, organic vegan stand. During my first day at the event, I ordered a beautifully arranged ceviche plate and a cup of ginger hibiscus iced tea ($12+$3). The dish was wonderfully creative: chopped white mushrooms resembling fish drizzled with something cheesy, but non-dairy, topped with blue corn chips highlighted with an avocado-tomato-sprout relish. Being very pleased with the taste, I went back to the same stand the next day and ordered a kale salad tossed with a delicious avocado vinaigrette ($9). Down the row, I sampled trail mix, healthy elixirs, and got a strong cup of joe. The coffee stand’s dark roast blew doors on that popular double tailed mermaid chain.

Vendors

Plants, seeds, garden tools, books, produce, clothing, artwork, and more lined an indoor hall, gardens, and outdoor tents.   Seed companies such as Baker Creek, Wild Boar Tomatoes, and the Garlic Gypsy displayed items for purchase and offered produce examples and samples. Mouthwatering tastings were had at the various chocolate and honey vendor stands, as well as in the children’s exhibit hall.

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That’s where I discovered I just had to get my hands on some Thai Rom watermelon seeds. It took quite a lot of will power to restrain from purchasing coconut macadamia butter, hand crafted tablecloths, trail mix with cacao bits, and a set of ornate antique drinking glasses.

The vendor hall also included local organizations soliciting volunteers and nonprofit organizations creating awareness. I learned about biodynamic and biointensive farming, local ecology, Navajo culture, and building sustainable farming in Mexico and Peru.

Exhibits and Demo Gardens

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The exhibit hall took me by surprise with its towering mountain of squashes in every size, color, shape, variety, and texture. Rows upon rows of tables displayed heirloom vegetables and fruits.

The Dazzling Dahlias show lit up one side of the hall with bright surreal petals blooming from green stems standing at attention in rows of various heights.

A gourd sculptor entertained onlookers as she adorned her intricately carved masks and manipulated a sandy brown bird puppet. I was most fascinated by the ironic fat cat birdhouse sculpture.

The far end of the exhibit hall featured the Great Pumpkin contest. Humungous, odd shaped pumpkins were forklifted to the scale for a ceremonious weigh in, then sat lopsided on pallets waiting for results.

Leonardo, a tired pumpkin who lay on its side, won first place at a whopping 1387 pounds!

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The demo gardens gave me ideas for all kinds of home-farm improvements. I was sitting on a hay bale in front of an old porcelain tub and barrel fountain with floating lilies, when I discovered an ingenious use for pallets. We have a “pallet garden” propped up against a fence that could be better utilized as a compost bin. Being the novice farmer, it was definitely an “aha” moment.

Goats, sheep, and all sorts of poultry were on display in the red barn area near the horse stables.

Chickens were offered at a special price, three for $45. Rows of caged clucking, honking, gobbling, and crowing birds stared at passersby with beady eyes and fluffed up feathers. I was given the stink eye by a turkey, confronted by an aggressive goose, dazzled by a gentleman rooster, and fell in love with a silky. I wanted to buy the bargain hens, but R responded no to my text request.

The Speakers

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During the entire event, three halls held speaker talks every hour on various farming topics from opening till closing. The hardest part was choosing which speaker to attend since every topic seemed valuable to me. Wild Boar’s owner gave a lot of helpful information about heirloom tomato growing, the girls from Baker Creek gave me guidance for a farm business, and a plant breeder warned of a Banana Apocalypse while stirring up the crowd with anti-Monsanto innuendos.- Hazzah! All of the speakers were like-minded and in jive with attendees by promoting non-GMO and organic seeds, being eco-conscious, promoting sustainable agriculture, and seed saving.

 

Russian River Brewery

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My last evening in Santa Rosa ended at Russian River Brewery where I was excited to purchase a case of the coveted Pliny we can never get our hands on at home. R and I are fans of IPA’s, and Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig are some of the best, at least, in most opinions. Pliny the Younger is the most coveted, even in the Santa Rosa area, since it’s only produced and sold in the beginning of February- and only to those who are on the pre-order list.

Set in wine country, the brewery also offers a local wine list, and features a simple menu. My garden salad topped with freshly smoked salmon paired deliciously well with a pint.

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Petaluma Seed Bank

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On the drive home, I stopped in wine country’s upscale Victorian-era town of Petaluma, home to Baker Creek’s Seed Bank.

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The store building, with its high vaulted ceiling and art-deco architecture, was an actual Sonoma County Bank constructed in the 1920’s.

Entering the seed bank, I was immediately overwhelmed by the library style rows of seed packets and gardening supply centers. The place was open, airy, and had rooms downstairs filled with more books, gardening tools, and seeds (or bulbs). Just like in a library, I could have devoted hours perusing seed cards and colorful informational books, but I had to get my chai down the way and head out on the long drive home.

 

Afterword

As I write, I realize this Expo was the beginning of my journey into the farming industry as an organic heirloom grower. It was a real eye opener, and a huge relief to know there are still “people of the earth” out there promoting and practicing what is natural for humans to do. When I’m outdoors, whether running, planting, teaching, hammocking, harvesting, or in the water, I am truly living. I’m in the painting. I’m feeling the environment. I’m alive. This is where I am and where I ought to be. I can’t wait to see where this journey takes me and how much R and I will grow (in so many ways) by the next National Heirloom Expo!

 

 

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