Heirloom Purity

By Sarah Spitz

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Heirloom Purity
Four companies control 60% of global proprietary seed sales. “Heirloom seeds with a story, rooted in a place and time,” belong to the people.” For those with a passion for gardening, pure food and sustainability, there is no better place to be than the Heirloom Expo, celebrating its 10th anniversary, just up the road at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, September 12-14. This three-day festival features educational, organizational and commercial exhibitors; food, garden and product vendors; speakers, workshops, a massive pyramid of squash, a giant pumpkin contest (1900 pounds in 2019!) and so many seeds—including a three-day seed exchange! Launched by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company founder Jere Gettle, Heirloom Expo began as a conversation among heirloom seed enthusiasts in 2010 and became an annual event in 2011 (interrupted by COVID until now), featuring open pollinated seeds, natural and pure foods. Headquartered on a farm in Mansfield, in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, Baker Creek was founded in 1998, boasting gardens, greenhouses, a village with a seed store, a plant-based farm-to-table restaurant, boutique and bakery, and plays host to public festivals in the spring and fall. For thousands of years, people grew, saved and shared their own seeds. But seeds are a lucrative and power-mad business: In 2022 the seed industry reached a global value of $75.2 billion dollars. By 2019, four seed companies controlled 60% of global proprietary seed sales. If you own the seeds, you control the food supply. It’s a dangerous situation. Preserving heirloom seeds is one way to guarantee plant diversity and prevent a complete monopoly of the world’s food supply. Expo spokesperson Michelle Johnson defines heirloom varieties as, “Those that have been passed down and grown in families or communities for generations. They are seeds with a story, rooted in a place and time. They’re fascinating and miraculous. Heirloom varieties are often more hardy, tasty, and nutritious than commercially available varieties. And, unlike F1 hybrids, people can save the seeds of heirloom varieties and pretty much know what they’re going to get the next season. They’re not seeds that are patented or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Heirloom seeds belong to the people.”
GMOs and California politics collided in 2012 when Prop 37 would have required labeling of genetically modified foods; 53% percent of voters rejected it. The now-notorious chemical giant Monsanto was among the largest supporters of the anti-Prop 37 campaign and is a leading seed monopoly. Although genetically modified seeds are generally not available to the public, when GMO seeds get blown by wind from conventional farms, organic farmers’ crops can be contaminated. Then Monsanto swoops in to sue the unwitting organic farmer for infringing on its patents.

The very idea that a seed can be patented should be an insult to anyone who’s ever grown food on their own. A hybrid seed isn’t a bad thing, but if your hybrid tomato tastes great this year, depending on which of the original parent’s characteristics dominate, there’s no guarantee it will taste the same next year. But heirloom seeds do make that possible because they grow out “true.”
Home gardeners know that. LA-based author, blogger, YouTube broadcaster, podcaster, community garden plot holder and garden business owner Christy Wilhelmi, is the “Gardenerd.” She’s been a speaker at Heirloom Expo since 2015. This year she’ll be speaking about small-space fruit gardening.

Her three books—two on gardening and one novel, with a second in the works— include “Gardening for Geeks,” focused on small space veggie growing and” Grow Your Own Mini Fruit Garden,” which she’ll be bringing with her, and the delightful novel, “Garden Variety,” set (where else?) in a community garden. All three will be available for purchase at Expo.

Talk about practicing what you preach: Christy’s Mar Vista back yard (not to mention the front!) boasts blackberries, dragon fruit, artichokes, a plethora of unusual tomato varieties, pineapples, fuji apples, blood oranges, nectarines, monarch butterflies, chickens, four compost bins, a beehive and much more. Her community garden plot at Ocean View Farms in Mar Vista provides whatever she doesn’t grow at home.

She’d been a dancer and an actress until torn ligaments in her ankles stopped her career path. She started gardening at around the same time she became vegetarian. The name, she says, was an epiphany: “I bolted straight out of bed one night with the name, ‘Gardenerd,’ and got it trademarked, patented and secured the website with the name.”
And she’s self-taught. “The name, Gardenerd, speaks loudly to what I come from: Nerd stock. My mother was a nurse, my father an engineer. While I wasn’t great at school, I am a voracious learner. When I want to know something, I’ll dive into it. And that’s how it was with gardening for me.”
Christy Wilhelmi will give a talk on small space fruit growing at the Expo on Wed., September 13 at 4 p.m.

Until this year, the Heirloom Expo took place in Santa Rosa, where Baker Creek has a store. Michelle Johnson says community support and enthusiasm made it really special. This year, for the first time, it’s being held at Ventura County Fairgrounds.

“Expo draws a national audience, but at its core it’s really a local event, meant to elevate the work that local farmers, gardeners, community groups, chefs, cooks, and foodies are doing. The Central Coast has such a rich agricultural history, and the local food scene is spectacular. We wanted to celebrate and tap into that for the 10th year of the Expo,” Johnson said.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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September 1, 2023