“Feel them. Smell them. Taste them,” urged instructor Melissa Kruse-Peeples, the Conservation Program Manager at Native Seeds/SEARCH. She offered that advice to a group of avid agricultural aficionados at a Native American Seed Growers Workshop in Tucson, Arizona.
Spread out on a classroom table were containers of unidentified seeds and the student’s mission, similar to that of Native Seeds/SEARCH itself, was to not only identify the traditional seed crop items, but to learn more about the art and science of seeds and the growing and stewarding of some of the crops that have fed Indigenous Peoples for centuries.
“Workshops like this are part of what we’re all about, our mission of working with Native American communities concerned about food security,” said NSS Executive Director Larrie Warren. “Providing free seeds and planting tips to Native American farmers is part of what we’re all about—distributing seeds to people in need, that’s our goal.”
More than two dozen interested agrarians attended the two-day workshop to learn how to grow, save, and store seeds. Attendees came from out-of-town and out-of-state representing the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, San Carlos Apache, Gila River Indian Community, Navajo, and other tribes in various capacities as backyard gardeners, educators, and large-scale farmers.
Bob Sotomayor, Yaqui, of the San Xavier Co-op Farm trains staff members who work with different types of vegetable crops. “Our 800 acres are primarily alfalfa, but we also farm traditional crops like beans, corn, and squash, and have gone into non-traditional crops like cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. The success of our efforts have expanded to the point now where tribal groups in the various communities have adopted them and are anxious to learn more about how to grow crops for healthy eating, in particular, for the elders and children,” Sotomayor said.
Sotomayor credits Native Seeds/SEARCH with helping Native American farmers realize that crops that have been around for centuries shouldn’t be allowed to disappear. Citing the fact that NSS gives out 8,000 seed packets to Native Americans annually (with a new program to disseminate pounds of seeds to larger scale Native farmers), he says, “New life has been breathed into the agrarian community. Native crops have survived all this time and for a logical reason, they’re far superior in their genetic makeup. People have depended on them for a long time and they mustn’t ever be allowed to go out of production.”
Richard Silvas, of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, plans to do his part by planting organic foodstuffs at the tribally-owned Tortuga Ranch, which has 39,000 acres. The initial garden grows melons, cantaloupe, and bell peppers for community members. “Just to see people’s faces when you give them a watermelon is reward enough for me,” he says.
Jerry Soto, Tohono O’odham, and his Pima cousin are working together on a small garden plot along the Salt River reservation. “We’re not farmers, but we’re getting back into it,” say the pair who currently cultivate corn, squash, watermelons, and lima beans.
Calvin and Tanya Woods represented community gardeners in the Tesuque Pueblo outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Our agricultural department broke up two acres into individual family plots where we grow what our ancestors taught us, traditional foods for survival,” says Calvin who is learning how to plant, store, harvest, and share his white corn, sweet corn, pumpkins, and watermelons.
Sharing has special meaning for him: “Due to our wildlife situation, lots of deer and elk like to graze my garden, so my melons didn’t get to picking stage before they got eaten up. But we’re taught to plant for everything—all living creatures—as part of our concept of sharing. When that happens, you’re giving back part of your bounty.”
Now in its’ 30th year, the nonprofit NSS seed bank offers over 2,000 ascensions of seeds, about half of which originated from indigenous communities in Mexico and the Arizona/New Mexico Four Corners region. “We exist to keep those seeds around and get them into the field,” says Kruse-Peeples, who encourages a return of some of the crop in seed form to continue the distribution process to even more Native farmers.
Free seeds are available to Native peoples living in the Greater Southwest region (Colorado River on the west; eastern border of New Mexico and Chihuahua; Four Corners area of the U.S. on the north, and the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico on the south). For Natives living in the region, 10 free seed packets are available in a calendar year.
“There’s certainly been a big revival of interest and effort in the reconnection of NSS and indigenous farmers. We’re now working with New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, providing seeds to all farmers in the pueblo over age 60 so they can focus an effort on getting their youth back into traditional farming.”