Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ancient Seeds for Modern Needs

Native Seeds/SEARCH conserves, distributes and documents the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico. Native Seeds/SEARCH (“NS/S”) promotes the use of these ancient crops and their wild relatives by gathering, safeguarding, and distributing their seeds to farming and gardening communities. They also work to preserve knowledge about their uses.

On December 19, 1997, NS/S and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) each purchased a portion of a 160-acre farm in Patagonia, Arizona. NS/S bought 60-acres of rich flood plain fields away from the creeks and TNC purchased the remaining 100 acres of farm, including the creek bottom and neighboring corridor of native Sacaton grass and cottonwood trees. While TNC would work to preserve the Sonoita Creek riparian corridor running through its newly acquired land, NS/S would use the flood plain fields to grow and conserve native crops.

The first grow-out occurred in the summer of 1998. Beginning with 1-acre of land, NS/S grew about 40 different accessions of crops. Weeds were by far the biggest challenge. Weeds and the 2-hour round-trip daily commute from Tucson! Since then, they have continued to increase both the number of acres being managed as well as the number of crops being grown each year. A typical season consists of regenerating between 200 and 350 accessions on 12-15 acres, seed increase, and growing crops identified for specific projects, such as seed stock for Tarahumara farmers in the Sierra Madre or a new seed bank initiative at Hopi. Remaining fields are covered cropped, often with cereal/legume mixes to add nutrients and organic matter to our soils.

Though once inhabited by the Sobapuri Indians, the fields NS/S now uses to grow native crops were used to grow everything from alfalfa to zucchini during the 1960’s and 1970’s. With deep sandy loam soils, abundant summer rainfall and mild temperatures; the Conservation Farm has proven an ideal location for growing the wide diversity of crops maintained in their seedbank.

Cultural Memory Banking

Cultural memory banking, a term coined by anthropologist Virginia Nazarea, recognizes the intimate link existing between human cultures and their crops. In the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, farmers are the keepers of many traditions. Unfortunately, they are becoming a diminishing force in many communities. Fewer and fewer youths move into the agricultural sector, choosing instead to pursue educational or job opportunities elsewhere. Thus, the knowledge associated with planting, cultivating, harvesting, and using the crops long associated with these cultures is at risk of being lost. Though seed banks conserve germplasm, they do not typically also conserve the traditional knowledge that develops over generations of agricultural practice – knowledge that would enrich our understanding of how a crop was cultivated and utilized within a community and hopefully provide critical insight on managing these resources for future generations.

In the late 1990s, NS/S undertook to expand their seed bank efforts to include a cultural component, integrating cultural information – the agricultural practices, stories, songs, and recipes associated with specific crops in the seed bank – with their existing database of collection information. In effect, they would combine the geneticist's concern for conserving unique traits of a crop with a folklorist's concern for conserving oral history about the crop.

NS/S started by returning to interview farmers from whom early collections of seed had been made by NS/S staff. From August 1997 to 1999, trips were made to interview Navajo, Mt. Pima, Tarahumara and Tohono O’odham farmers and elders. NS/S asked each farmer what types of crops they grew, how each was grown, how they located their fields and knew when to plant, how they chose which seeds to save for planting and how they were stored from year to year, and how each crop was used, including cooking techniques and recipes.

As originally intended, the CMB would have been primarily an in-house resource, accessed via their computers. But information gleaned from conversations before, during and after the interview process suggested an alternative application: the information NS/S was gathering was of most importance to the communities with whom they were talking! That is, it was more critical that Native American farmers and youths learn about their own agricultural traditions than it was that NS/S document them. Thus was born the idea of refocusing the goals of the CMB project in such a way as to ensure that the information NS/S was collecting would go back to the communities that would benefit most from that same information.

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