Since its founding in 1983, Native Seeds/SEARCH has pursued its mission to conserve, distribute and document the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds and their wild relatives, and tell the stories behind these seeds in the cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico. This treasured Tucson nonprofit organization promotes the use of these ancient crops and their wild relatives by gathering, safeguarding, and distributing their seeds to farming and gardening communities. For the next five weeks, Edible Baja Arizona will be spotlighting different aspects of the work of Native Seeds/SEARCH with weekly posts by regular contributor Debbie Weingarten. Please become a member, make a donation, and be sure to stop by their retail store or online shop for one-of-kind gifts this holiday season. This is the first post in our series.
It’s mid-morning when I visit the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store on Campbell Avenue. The store sits in a row of adorable businesses—a trendy breakfast joint, an antique store, a catering establishment. Potted plants and prickly pears line the covered sidewalk. Just inside the doorway of the shop, the sound of busy traffic disappears. The store is quiet. Morning light streams past the enormous century plant mounted in a display window. The air smells like wood and herbal tinctures, and I find that it is impossible not to breathe deeply here. For Native Seeds/SEARCH, which has been an anchor in the Southern Arizona community since its inception in 1983, the retail store has long served as its public face. Originally located on 4th Avenue, the store moved to Campbell Avenue in 2010. As NS/S has continued its work to support food security by focusing on seed security, the store has remained an important piece of the NS/S mission. “The shop provides people with an entry point into what we do,” says Laura Jones, interim executive director and longtime employee of NS/S. “It connects us to the community.” The primary work of NS/S is to collect and preserve seed biodiversity—with an emphasis on traditional crops and rare or endangered seed varieties—through seedbanking efforts, seed grow-outs, and documentation. The store supports NS/S in its mission to build a community around those seeds by stocking native foods, wildcrafted medicines, and other locally made products. The shelves are filled with Pima lima beans and dried cholla buds from San Xavier Coop Farm, flour mixes from Hayden Flour Mills, San Pedro River Valley Salsa, Tio Ceddy’s Agua Chiltipin, mole from Mano Y Metate, tepary beans from Ramona Farms, salves and tinctures from Desert Tortoise Botanicals, and Native Seeds’ very own line of desert-themed dessert mixes, created in partnership with Cheri’s Desert Harvest. Browsing the store is an exploration in the foods, crafts, and value-added products created by farmers and artisans in the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico. Every wall, every surface of the shop is artfully curated with paintings, baskets, greeting cards, and jewelry. Bowls are filled with dried gourds and native loofah. Long shelves display an impressive collection of books—many penned by local authors—for the chef, gardener, or curious composter.
As I’m snapping photos of the store, retail manager, Chad Borseth, points out the store’s collection of wooden bowls and spoons. Borseth tells me they were hand-carved by Tarahumara artisans from Mexico’s Copper Canyon. Dr. Barney Burns, the NS/S co-founder who passed away in 2014, spent years making trips to Copper Canyon with his wife and fellow NS/S co-founder, Mahina Drees. Now the store contains the last of Burns’ collection of baskets, bowls, and spoons purchased to support economic viability for Tarahumara families. Borseth tells me that some of the spoons are twenty-five years old and all bear the physical memory of Burns, who regularly worked late into the night, fine-sanding each bowl and spoon until they were smooth. Borseth takes one pale spoon in his hand and holds it out for me to see. “They’re all different,” he says, “Like this one is slightly crooked, but somehow it’s perfect.”
In the very center of the shop are rotating racks filled with seed packets. They represent, of course, the heart of Native Seeds/SEARCH. The shop provides the experienced (or newly-transplanted) Arizona gardener with the unique opportunity to purchase desert-adapted seeds of all sorts, including vegetable varieties, grasses, ornamentals, and wildflowers. Borseth explains that the store aims to serve as a hub for gardeners interested in exchanging information and seeds. In 2012, NS/S established Arizona’s first seed lending library, which is stocked with seeds grown and collected by Tucson gardeners. Gardeners can check out seeds for free, grow them at home, and bring saved seeds back to the store. The store also hosts a free monthly Garden Gab where gardeners can explore a theme related to desert gardening, ask questions, and trade experiences and growing tips. Providing space for this type of education and information exchange is key to the organization’s focus on preserving seeds and reestablishing a culture of knowledge around those seeds.
The retail staff keeps a small demonstration garden on the east side of the store. In the garden in early November, a devil’s claw plant reveals several of its hooked fruit, still green, dangling like ornaments. In another planter, Pima Club Wheat spills over the sides like wild hair. Standing beside a planted horse trough decorated with a sticker that says “Support Sustainable Agriculture,” Borseth cracks open the pod of a native cotton plant, the husk crumbling away between his fingers. “The store provides an experience,” he says, “People tell me this is their first stop when they get to Tucson and their last stop before they leave. I think that’s pretty great.”
Over the next five weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at the variety of projects supported by Native Seed/SEARCH and how they enrich the Baja Arizona foodshed and broader community. To learn more about their mission, visit the Native Seed/SEARCH website. To show your support, make an online donation today, visit the online shop or become a member, or visit the Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store at 3061 N. Campbell Avenue in Tucson, AZ. The store is open Sunday thru Saturday, 10:00am – 5:00pm, and closed Mondays.
More posts in this Community Spotlight series:
The Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank, located just off River Road in Tucson, is home to more than 1800 unique strains of traditional crops.
A Native Seeds/SEARCH Community Seed Grant is helping City High School’s SLUG project take root.
The volunteers at Native Seeds/SEARCH are key to the organization’s success.