The second annual National Heirloom Exhibition last week in Santa Rosa was much expanded from the inaugural event the prior year. In 2011 organizers managed to fill out the Sonoma County Fairground's cavernous Grace Pavilion with hundreds of vendors selling everything from worm castings to garden tools, and also to stock an adjacent Hall of Flowers with mountains of open pollinated vegetables, representing hundreds of varieties of corn, squash, peppers, beans, tomatoes, and more. It was an impressive showing that surprised even the event's organizers, the folks at Baker Creek Seeds who run the Seed Bank in Petaluma.
This year, however, the Heirloom Expo filled the entire Fairgrounds. The vendor's hall was more crowded and overflowed into two other halls where dozens of workshops covered topics ranging from the mundane like cheese making to the obscure like theories of biochar carbon sequestration and soil remediation.
The vegetables, the stars of the show, were again crowded into an impressive show space within the Hall of Flowers, but this cornucopia also spilled over everywhere with watermelons and winter squash scattered around hay bails and makeshift picnic spots in the shade. The livestock stables were about a quarter occupied with heritage breeds of sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, cattle and pigs. A wildly popular seed exchange was only made space for on the shady side of Finley Hall, and unless you were ready to use your elbows and cut your way through the aggressive mass of over-eager gardeners greedily scooping up grains for winter storage, you were out of luck.
By any measure the National Heirloom Exposition has come into its own, and only in its second year of existence. It has easily become the main event of the movement, the biggest and best showcase of organic farming and foods probably in all of the USA. More than a few Mendocino farmers and residents made the trip down to ogle over Blue Hubbard giants and bushels of purple okra, even though our County’s Apple Fair and Rodeo — which still boasts a finer display of organic and conventionally grown local apples, pears, and other fruits — kicked off just days after. The good folks from Fort Bragg’s Noyo Food Forest were seen handing out literature from a table in the main hall.
The politics of the food and environmental movement were even more overtly woven into the Expo this year also. Speakers again included major thinkers, activists, and farmers who have been on the front lines, fighting corporate agribusiness for decades. Especially notable talks were delivered by Bob Cannard, the owner of Petaluma's Green String Farm, and Eric Holt-Gimenez of Food First.
Cannard gave a rambling but entertaining lecture that included some history of southern Sonoma County agriculture, mostly a tale of declining soils and strip malls replacing orchards and fields of Gravensteins and prunes. Although he grows acres of tomatoes at his farm, Cannard says he's not seen a horn worm in years due to the healthy soils and biodiversity he promotes around and among his crop rows. “Bugs are agents of mercy,” he told a rapt audience of several hundred to explain why pests wipe out fields of mono-crops. The insects, and the plants we call “weeds,” often take over and destroy mono-crops in an effort to save the soil that is rapidly being drained of nutrients and biomass in the industrial grower's quest for bigger yields and short-term profits. Cannard preached the virtues of sheet composting to rejuvenate and grow healthy soils upon formerly paved over surfaces and denuded grounds of clay and rock that have seen the violence of “development” and “modern agriculture.”
Across the fairgrounds in another hall Eric Holt-Giminez gave an authoritative overview of threats to food sovereignty — the right and need for communities to control and benefit from their farming and food supply. According to Holt-Giminez, who has been traveling the global south and studying small scale sustainable farming since the late 1970s, especially in Latin America, the world's food supply has become dominated by a few major corporations that control key points in the production and distributions chains. Their dominance came about not from natural market processes and consumer demand, but rather from the imperialistic decisions of powerful American and European corporations and politicians.
Firms like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont have gained monopoly control over a set of industrial-scale technologies involving the genetic modification of food crops and utilization of petrochemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. “These companies have gained control of seeds because they want to sell chemicals,” explained Holt-Giminez. The chemical corporations and their major financial backers, Bank of America and JP Morgan, for example, with the help of a few powerful US foundations, and the US government, advanced this technological set in the global south for over four decades in the so-called “green revolution.” It was an imposition of farming techniques and economic models that purposefully drove small farmers, many of them practicing what is now called organic, sustainable agriculture, out of business. Combined with trade policies that have been supported by the major agribusiness companies on the production and marketing side of food crops, including the WTO and NAFTA, small-scale sustainable agriculture has been dealt a devastating blow in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
More and more the world's farms and economies look like California's Central Valley plantations, owned by major financial companies and millionaire businessmen, toiled over by landless peasants displaced from their small holdings by global trade policies and wars, producing food crops as commodities for export, crops of little benefit to those who live around the pesticide laden “soils” that have been drained of nutrients and life, turned into little more than a toxic sponge for water and chemical fertilizers. California's agribusiness was the model around which much of the global south was made to conform, a process that included displacing millions of farmers and forcing numerous nations into a structural food deficit.
Holt-Giminez concluded his talk with some theory, describing Karl Polanyi's notion of a countermovement, the mobilization of civil society against the ravages of “free market” capitalism liberated from the restraints communities have traditionally placed upon the economy to prevent mass displacement, poverty, and starvation that invariably results from the commodification of labor, land, water, and housing. The man from Food First who takes so many cues from small farmers' movements in Mexico and Central America, was in effect calling for his audience to organize against the continuing march of corporate agribusiness and the financial corporations that increasingly own and propel larger accumulations of land and life under the industrial extraction model. Take them on and oppose them from within their stronghold, the USA.
The Heirloom Expo's audience gave Holt-Gimenez a standing ovation, just one of many signs that attendees came for more than just the vegetable porn and new-age, feel good products like “natural,” hypo-allergenic furniture and anti-oxidant fruit shakes made from obscure Brazilian roots and shoots.
In fact even though much of the Heirloom Expo is essentially a shopping mall with vendors selling their organic goods and appropriate technology widgets for farming and gardening, anti-capitalist and anti-corporate politics are evident around every corner, in every other booth, and in the messages of many speakers. Take-away messages that are hard to miss include: smaller is better, oil is over, do it yourself, localize it, and diversity in all things is naturally superior. Vandana Shiva was the keynote speaker last year, delivering a critique of capitalist agriculture, patriarchy, and the colonization of life that set an irrefutably radical political tone for the entire Expo.
Yet for all the radical ideas floating around, something Holt-Giminez observed in his lecture seems to ring true about the Heirloom Expo and too many of the attendees. “Americans are really good at changing practices as a form of progressivism, but we're not so much about changing the rules of the game,” he remarked after giving a lengthy description of resistance movements against land grabs, biopiracy, and industrialization of agriculture in the global south. In places like Brazil, India, and Thailand, communities are not complacent in simply adopting progressive practices such as organic farming, seed saving, and community supported agriculture. People already do these things there, but according to Holt-Giminez, farmers in places as different as Bolivia and Vietnam understand that unless the rules of the game — laws pertaining to land tenure, investment, taxes, intellectual property, international trade, and the environment — that massively favor control over agriculture by global chemical and financial corporations are transformed, then progressive practices will amount to nothing more than novel alternatives relegated to the periphery of the economy. In other words, they will become what they are in the United States: the playgrounds of privileged hobbyists and consumers, only accessible for those who can afford the time or luxury of worm composting, backyard bee keeping, and fancy slow food meals at Chez Panisse.
It sounds very much like the Anderson Valley or Ukiah, Redwood Valley, and Willits, places where contented hippies and back-to-the-landers who got in early enough, before the land price boom, or who are independently wealthy, leisurely poke away at their permaculture gardens, tilling in humanure, and tuning their water through vortexes, all the while the great alcohol plantations incrementally take over more of the region’s best soil and claim more of the watershed for irrigation and frost protection. Mendocino absolutely teems with organic, biodynamic, eco-fantastic farmers and gardeners, even though the county is truly owned and run by the grape planters and the timber barons who dominate when it comes to the rules of the game, the laws governing land, taxes, investment, and extraction. Sonoma County is no different. Actually, it’s arguably more hypocritical. Sonoma County's Heirloom Expo is very much an exhibition of privileged people engaging in enjoyable organic practices from farm to table, tasting the fruits of their fetishized salt-of-the-earth labors that depend very much on their upper-class status and inheritances.
There is some saving political grace, however. There is a part of the Heirloom Expo that is inherently about changing the rules that govern agriculture in California and the United States. This year's event was very much used to boost the campaign for Proposition 37, the GMO labeling initiative that would change a very small, but important set of rules in California, forcing corporate agribusiness and major food producers and vendors, to label products containing GMO ingredients. Buttons, stickers, and literature supporting Prop 37 were on display everywhere, and the campaign's staff was doing outreach at a very well-positioned table along a busy isle in the vendors hall. The anti-GMO campaigners are of course being outspent by a ratio of 7 to 1, with a handful of companies including Monsanto, DuPont, PepsiCo, and BASF dropping millions on TV ads and other propaganda.
If the labeling initiative prevails it would be a small, but meaningful change in the rules, exactly the kind of reform that can amount to a larger revolutionary shift if combined with other efforts.
A pitfall to focusing on GMOs, however, is that many anti-GMO activists unfortunately only understand the issue as a threat to our health. So-called “frankenfoods” are a scary monster around which consumers can be organized, but simply attacking genetically modified organisms as threats to environmental health and safety misses the larger struggle over the, pardon my Marxist turn of phrase, means of production, the way that food is grown and distributed, and the system of determining who benefits from agriculture.
To fully understand why the biotechnology, food manufacturing, and retail industries are so adamant about GMOs it's necessary to contextualize this technology in a broader array of technologies and laws that together foster ever-greater concentrations of power and ownership over patented food crops, petrochemical inputs, and marketing channels. GMOs are a key component of a larger technological and legal regime that allows a handful of powerful corporations and financial companies to monopolize agricultural production and squeeze out wealth. Smaller farms, organic production, sustainable methods, fewer energy inputs, and more fractured and local markets are anathema to this agenda, and that's why the supporters of GMOs have also crafted laws and fostered economic conditions for over a half century now to squash this alternative, to make existence as a small independent organic farmer impossible.
It's a bit ironic, and sweetly so, that California voters may strike a small blow to GMO technology and the global corporations that benefit from it, given that California, through its universities, agribusinesses, and biotechnology companies are largely responsible for creating genetically modified crops. This is the great contradiction that is the National Heirloom Exposition, an event that features radical critics of corporate agribusiness and biotechnology and promotes a transformation of farming and food.
Lacking, at least to this author's eye, at the Expo was inclusion of the food justice movement, especially the organizations and activists who have been quietly, but successfully transforming California's inner-city communities with gardens, grocery co-ops, and parks. Places like Oakland, Richmond, San Jose, and the southern industrial zones of San Francisco are home to very energetic and growing movements, and it's these food and farming activists who have by far the most sophisticated critiques of the problem with how food is grown and distributed today. Unfortunately then the Expo was mostly a white folks' affair, and mostly a get-together for middle class gardeners and farm lovers who think in narrow environmental terms, as opposed to broader social and economic terms. Given how central racial inequality and imperialism are to the local and global politics of food, this has got to change if the Heirloom Expo is to really become a main event forum for the organic and sustainable agriculture movement.
But it was a great show, for only its second year, and there is much potential to build upon it. Hopefully next year, whether Proposition 37 is passed or fails, there will be much more discussion and exhibition of ideas designed to change the rules by which we farm and feed ourselves.