Growing Habits

Native Seeds/SEARCH builds a new home to house its seeds and pursue its mission

The old adobe guesthouse at 2130 N. Alvernon Way is bursting at the seams. It's not full of people, but rather thousands of varieties of seeds just waiting to be planted in their native Southwestern soil.

The guesthouse, dubbed the Sylvester House, is a home of Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House), or NS/S for short, an organization that "conserves, distributes and documents the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds" native to the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico.

"We've just really outgrown our existing location," said Bryn Jones, executive director of NS/S.

Luckily for the seeds at the Sylvester House, they will soon have a new building to call home. As early as this fall, the folks at NS/S will move their seeds to a new building at Brandi Fenton Memorial Park, 3482 E. River Road. NS/S has nearly 7,000 square feet of space at their new location, a site that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historical agricultural site.

The new seed bank will have expanded storage space, a large walk-in freezer for frozen seeds and more security functions, like a sprinkler system, Jones said.

"This is exciting for us," Jones said. "This is a step forward."

The new location will also bring together all the NS/S administration employees under one roof. As it is now, some are located at the Sylvester House, while others work at an NS/S office building on 220 E. Sixth St.

NS/S began fundraising for their new facility about two years ago with their capital campaign, which has so far raised more than $850,000 from individual donors, Jones said.

The capital campaign is co-chaired by NS/S board member and well-known local chef Janos Wilder, the owner of Janos Restaurant and J Bar, both located at the Westin La Paloma, 3770 E. Sunrise Drive. He has been volunteering with NS/S for about 15 years, he said.

Wilder said that while the campaign's official goal is $1 million, he thinks NS/S will need about $1.5 million for the new facility.

NS/S will not be alone at their new location, however. Pima County has plans "complementary" to that of NS/S and plans to develop "classrooms, a farmers' market, an outdoor community kitchen, gardens and orchards" at the site, Jones said.

"It's quite a process," Jones said. "It's been a flurry of activity."

The growth of NS/S did not happen not overnight; the organization is celebrating its 25th year, quite a feat, considering its humble beginnings.

In 1983, Gary Nabhan, Mahina Drees, Karen Reichhardt and Barney Burns founded NS/S at the request of members of the Tohono O'odham tribe who were looking for the seeds of their ancestors, Jones said.

"There was a realization that crops were disappearing," Jones said. "Farmers weren't able to carry on farming traditions."

Years and years of searching for seeds across the Southwest took place, and NS/S eventually grew into the organization it is today, with a handful of fulltime employees, a board of directors and dozens of local volunteers. As interest in the seeds grew, so did the operation itself. NS/S now operates a 60-acre conservation farm in Patagonia and a retail store located at 526 N. Fourth Ave.

The store on Fourth Avenue not only sells seeds, but also handmade crafts from the region.

"We want to help support people staying on their land," Jones said.

Also notable are the more than 4,000 NS/S "members," who come mainly from the Southwestern region of the U.S., but also live "in other states and even other countries," Jones said. Members pay an annual fee of $25-$1,000, "depending on how much people want to support us," Jones said. Members receive discounts at the retail store and on the NS/S Web site, as well as newsletters and notifications of NS/S events. There is also a free seed program for Native Americans, Jones said.

"I've been really impressed with the loyalty of our members," Jones said. "We actually have a lot of 'lifetime' members."

One Tucsonan who has made it clear he plans to support NS/S for more than the foreseeable future is Wilder, whom Jones calls "personally passionate" about the organization and "a wonderful spokesperson."

Wilder said he and NS/S were on a "parallel path" in 1983; they were both on a mission to work with foods from the region. Wilder was asked to cater a dinner for the NS/S board of directors and never looked back. He now hosts an annual fundraising dinner for the organization.

Wilder, who says he volunteers for NS/S about five to 10 hours per week, also uses the organization's products in his restaurants.

"I'm very proud of that," Wilder said. "It's a cornerstone of the cuisine."

Wilder said the food that grows from the seeds is "great," and is uniquely adapted to the dry climate.

"It gives you a sense of belonging to where you live," Wilder said. "It's a sense of identity."

Jones agrees. After gardening frequently as a kid, Jones said she wanted to "learn where her food came from" after moving to Tucson in 1998. She offers one cautionary piece of advice: Eating homegrown native food is addictive.

"Once you taste food like this (grown with NS/S seeds), there's no going back to the grocery store," she said.

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