Growing Concern

Continuing Its Fight Against Monoculture, Native Seeds/SEARCH Triples Its Retail Space

By J.E. Relly

WITH THE POST-industrial agribusiness march toward monoculture, and Monsanto proudly announcing a market onslaught of genetically engineered food, it's apt and even reassuring that Native Seeds/SEARCH continues to protect biodiversity.

Currents As most of the country's seed banks, storehouses for the greatest collections of agriculture breeding stock, are allowing irreplaceable seed samples to wither and die, the non-profit organization has preserved nearly 1,800 collections of desert-adapted Southwestern seeds, promoting the use of ancient crops that sustained native peoples throughout this region.

Since the early '80s genesis of Native Seeds/SEARCH--largely at the requests of Tohono O'odham farmers wanting to use the seeds of their grandfathers--the grassroots operation has expanded its distribution to include Canadian, European and Asian gardeners growing crops that include Tohono O'odham tepary beans, Tarahumara apachito corn and Rio San Lorenzo amaranth.

While its former Tucson Botanical Gardens location increased public exposure to Native Seeds/SEARCH, with mail orders climbing to 4,200 last year, the organization has decided to relocate to a shop on North Fourth Avenue, a move that will triple its retail and distribution space. (The native demonstration garden exhibit remains at the Botanical Gardens.)

Don't presume this implies that Native Seeds/SEARCH has landed its focus on the commercial grid. Because of high demand, buyers are limited to six packets of seeds from each variety. The heirloom seeds are unattractive to agribusiness because growing cycles are not uniform, unlike the lab-created hybrids.

While scientists with Ciba Geigy proudly announced their latest corn--genetically engineered to be unfettered by weed killer and resistant to insect annihilating antibiotics--Native Seeds/SEARCH Executive Director Angelo Joaquin, Jr. says that in the face of the dwindling family farm, the organization promotes traditional native growing practices that include passing seeds from one generation to the next, singing, praying and performing ritualistic ceremonies with the crops.

"In my culture, plants, animals and humans don't have a hierarchy," says Joaquin, a Tohono O'odham, who knows a farmer who plants an extra two rows of corn for the insects. Instead of chopping out weeds, a native farmer would allow the umbrage to cohabit with a crop. "In a non-native garden an insect will eat the plant. If [an insect] comes to a native garden, it has a choice to make."

Joaquin practices traditional farming himself, daily praying to his plants, "I make certain they receive the thanks they deserve for providing me with physical and spiritual sustenance."

As Native Seeds/SEARCH has grown, the 4,400-member organization (20 percent Native American with complimentary memberships) continues to offer seeds to native people in the region. Whenever possible, the non-profit group buys seeds directly from the farmer in large enough quantities to avoid having to grow them in its own three-quarter acre garden at the Sylvester House, on North Alvernon Way, or on selected plots around town.

With a conventional freezer cache of several hundred varieties waiting to be grown out for seeds in the next two years, the organization, along with another conservation group, is considering buying a high-desert, 200-acre farm in Patagonia, south of Tucson. There, where temperatures are cooler, seeds from native peoples living in higher altitudes can be cultivated.

To maintain seed purity at its in-town plots, the organization requires that nothing else be grown within one-quarter mile of the crop. If two types of corn are grown on the Sylvester House plot, to prevent cross-pollination, members bag the corn as it grows and hand-pollinate the silk. The seeds continue to be grown out to maintain their adaptability to the changing environment, and a mishap as simple as overwatering can affect whether the seed, bred for durability, may be used.

But the new retail space for Native Seeds/SEARCH is more than a repository for hundreds of seeds. Those trying to satisfy a hankering for Tohono O'odham mesquite bean dessert, corn and pumpkin stew, or cholla bud vegetables with chili will find those recipes in the extensive native and wild foods book collection.

Wooden shelves hold displays of traditional native foods labeled for their nutritive and curative properties. Mixes of sweet heirloom bean soup include legumes that stretch the mainstream palate with the purple-hued Rio Zapes and Appaloosas among the more familiar Anasazi and Cranberry beans. Seasonal mesquite meal, used for fuel, dye and medicines, is sold in bags ready to whip into traditional grill cakes. The gnarly root, Osha, traditionally used for sore throats, stomach upsets and repelling snakes, roosts next to a collection of herbs ranging from Mexican oregano to the skinny-leafed laurel, all grown within a region from Durango, Colorado, to Durango, Mexico, and between Eastern California and the eastern boundary of New Mexico. For connoisseurs, there's red and blue roasted corn meal ready for Atole. For the purists, organic garlic. For the sensual, rocks of copal and piñon pitch. And for the kids, prickly pear lollipops.

"The crafts we sell are made by people who can use a source of revenue to stay on the land and farm," Joaquin says. The deforestation and drought in the Sierra Madre region of Northern Mexico, for example, have forced the Tarahumara people to rely on handwork for their livelihood. Native Seeds/SEARCH has given seeds back to the Tarahumara, instead of collecting from them. Projecto Recursos Tarahumara is a working effort with conservation groups on both sides of the border to protect tribal lands and indigenous agriculture from timber development.

While most of the store displays are for sale, the exhibits are also educational, with native-made goods ranging from Tarahumara burden baskets and painted rattles for the Matachine Dance to monolythic gourds, Yaqui masks, Pima Aboriginal and Hopi cotton, natural dyes, handcarved cypress and pine bowls and spoons. Sale proceeds are plowed back into the organization's many projects, including Desert Foods for Diabetes, which promotes consumption of traditional desert plant foods to combat diabetes--a major health threat among Native Americans; the Cultural Memory Bank, designed to record traditional planting and harvesting techniques; and supplying regional Native Americans with seeds. TW

Native Seeds/SEARCH, 526 N. Fourth Ave., celebrates its grand opening on Saturday, July 19, from 6 to 10 p.m.

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