Kevin Dahl is executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit outfit dedicated to rescuing vanishing crops by preserving and planting seeds. As agriculture has moved increasingly toward genetic monoculture, many alternative crops are in danger of being lost forever--a fate Native Seeds/SEARCH hopes to forestall by building its seed bank of diverse strains. Help out Native Seeds/SEARCH and fill your belly on Friday, April 8, by attending Flavors of the Desert, an annual fund-raiser featuring a sumptuous banquet prepared by Sous Chef Catering using native ingredients such as Zuni tomatillo, T'toi shallots and Taos blue corn. The menu includes green chilies stuffed with goat-cheese pate, turkey adobo with blackberry sauce, and prickly pear mousse pie with mesquite cookie-crumb crust. For more info on the dinner, contact Diana Peel at 622-5561. (Full disclosure: Ms. Peel happens to be my big sister. Please don't hold it against her.) Springtime also brings a fresh crop of chiles, beans and other goodies. Stop by Native Seeds/SEARCH's store, 526 N. Fourth Ave., or browse the Web site at www.nativeseeds.org to see the rich bounty in stock.

Why do you guys have so many seeds?

Because the Southwest had--and has--a rich agricultural heritage. Our region is the arid part of North America, from Northern New Mexico to the Tarahumara country in Mexico. We've collected from maybe 30 different cultural groups--some really wonderful stuff.

Why is seed collection important?

The seeds have values at several levels. They grow well in our region, so for people who want to have a vegetable garden here, they're very helpful. They take less water; they understand the bugs, so they're resistant to pests; they grow well in the soils that we have. They're very diverse, because the native farmers didn't really narrow the genetics of the material they were growing with. So they provided a large palette of genetic material that's useful to modern agriculture, where traits from these crops can be bred into modern crops. For instance, a sunflower that was grown by the Havasupi, who live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, has provided resistance to a pest that devastated the Australian sunflower crop.

Are we seeing more monoculture these days?

Since World War II, it's been the modus operandi of modern agriculture. It's very efficient and very effective, but it can also be very vulnerable. So rather than providing a diverse ecosystem where predators and pests work things out, the plant scientists have to be working to protect these crops.

And once you lose a plant, there's no getting it back.

Once you lose a gene, you don't get it back. In a sense, we've been a rescue operation, as people in the Southwest don't farm as much as they have in the past.

How many different varieties do you have?

Somewhere over 1,900. We call them "accessions," which means it was collected from a particular farmer, and it's a particular type. It might be very similar to another variety we collected from another farmer, but it might be different, too.

What's going down at the farm these days?

The farm got as much water did. We planted cool-season crops--beans and fava--and we're getting ready to plant the warmer season crops in May or June.

What's on the menu at Flavors of the Desert?

It'll be a scrumptious treat for people to attend because it (will feature) some very interesting traditional foods but cooked maybe not in such traditional manners, but by a master gourmet. Sous Chef has done wonders in the past with her marvelous creations.

How else can people help out?

Everyone in Tucson should stop by our store on Fourth Avenue sometime. The first thing they'll notice is that it smells wonderful. And it's different every week, too, depending on what herb we're packing up or mesquite flower or corn meal or whether the garlic's come in or the smell from the chile ristras. Even the crafts that we sell have wonderful smells.

What's the coolest item you've got on the shelves these days?

Some very hot chiles. We have more chiles than will fit in your article, but a couple that are real popular that people should know about are chipoltes, which have gotten some notoriety. Chipoltes are smoked jalapeño, and they're just delicious. People should also know about chiltepines, which are the local wild, real-hot chiles about the size of a pea.

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