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 our first Community Spotlight series, Edible Baja Arizona is highlighting 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 third post in our series.
Off of Pennington Avenue, in a concrete alley wedged between two city buildings, the City High SLUG (Sustainability Laboratory & Urban Garden) project is taking root. City High School is one of the most recent recipients of the Native Seeds/SEARCH Community Seed Grant, a program that aims to put culturally relevant and desert adapted seeds into the hands of organizations in the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico.
Through a large metal gate and past a glittering “Be Kind” mural, the alley next to City High School has been overhauled. Large sections of white shade cloth hang like ship sails. One three-story brick wall has been painted a vivid yellow, and the other is covered with hanging planters, some made from found objects. Onions grow in a burlap sack, chrysanthemums in an oxidizing metal container, and chiltipin plants poke out of inverted metal triangles. The whole space is very industrial-chic, lovely, impeccably maintained.
In the City High alleyway, Leah Farbstein stands with three high school students in front of the enormous yellow wall. As the school’s urban farming teacher and Farm-to-School Americorps member, Farbstein has ushered the installation of this space into fruition.
“The grant from Native Seeds/SEARCH has allowed us to try some different plants and seeds that we could not find elsewhere,” Farbstein explains. The students standing next to her nod in agreement.
“There are seeds that have been in families for years,” says Alfredo Vasquez, a junior. “Growing these seeds diversifies the food we’re able to grow.”
“Yeah,” says Maxwell Gay, a senior. “We think we’re starting from scratch. But we have to remember that there have been people growing food here since time immemorial.”
Farbstein and her students show me their new aquaponics system, a gorgeous metal structure that stretches one third of the length of the alleyway. Still in its infancy, City High’s aquaponics system is a soilless garden that relies on fish waste for fertilizer. Plants are held in place by lava rock, their roots dangling in the water, converting ammonia from the fish waste into nitrogen for plant growth.
The City High School SLUG project is a perfect example of how partnerships flourish, and how the work and vision of NS/S is rippling through the community, one seed grant at a time. Samantha Martinez, Native Seeds/SEARCH Outreach Coordinator and Americorps VISTA, tells me that NS/S conducts three rounds of Community Seed Grants per year. Qualifying organizations request their desert-adapted seeds of choice and commit to saving seed if at all possible. Organizations also pledge to report back to NS/S within 7-12 months with photos and documentation of their gardening successes and challenges.
“We like to know to determine what we could do better to help them be more successful in their gardening,” says Martinez. But even so, she says the organization recognizes the unpredictability inherent in gardening. Bad weather, insects, and other pests can wipe out crops before seeds can be saved.
Since the inception of the Community Seed Grant program in January 2011, Native Seeds/SEARCH has awarded seeds to over 300 organizations “working to enhance the nutritional, social, economic, or environmental health of underprivileged groups”—including schools, libraries, community centers, and senior centers.
Other groups awarded include the Pasqua Yaqui Senior Center, Bean Tree Farm, and the Phoenix Public Library. The Naco Wellness Initiative, whose mission is to provide curative and preventative medical and wellness services to the community of Naco, Sonora, has been awarded the grant several times. The seeds are grown in a garden housed at the Casa Hogar orphanage in Naco, Sonora. According to Martinez, the orphanage “aims to close the food loop so that they’re producing their own food.”
Raevyn Crews, a City High School senior, helped Farbstein apply for the Community Seed Grant. In addition to gaining grant-writing experience, Crews studied the desert-adapted seeds offered through the program. Along with her classmates, she helped select White Sonora Wheat, Malabar spinach, onions, peas, garlic, and pollinator attracting desert wildflowers.
When I ask her how the grant has helped her school, she talks about the benefit of observing plant cycles, “It helps students have relationships with a seed. The seed turns into a chile, and then that turns into salsa…You nurtured the plant, and then it nurtures you.”
Farbstein explains that the sophomore humanities class specifically requested that the school receive White Sonora Wheat through the Community Seed Grant. The White Sonora Wheat serves as an aid to their unit on native foods and the adaptation of agriculture in the Southwest. The White Sonora Wheat will be planted in one of the school’s garden plots at the Community Food Bank’s Las Milpitas de Cottonwood Urban Farm, where students will grow, harvest, thresh it by hand, and conduct baking experiments.
“Through working with Native Seeds/SEARCH, we get to be part of an organization that promotes desert adaptation, seed saving, and seed sharing,” Farbstein says, “These seeds really have the potential to conserve biodiversity in this part of the world.”
More posts in this Community Spotlight series:
Native Seeds/SEARCH Retail Store provides an entry point for community members to become involved with the seed conservation organization.
The Native Seeds/SEARCH seed bank, located just off River Road in Tucson, is home to more than 1800 unique strains of traditional crops.
The volunteers at Native Seeds/SEARCH are key to the organization’s success.