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 fourth post in our series.
On a Thursday morning, a group of volunteers sit at a table in the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Center. As they carefully weigh kernels of Glass Gem Corn and pack them into tiny plastic bags, they talk intently about Monsanto and the world’s food supply. This group, which seems to double as a weekly seed and discussion club, has been volunteering together at NS/S for over two decades.
“We call ourselves ‘The Rowdy Bunch’, because we used to be extremely noisy,” says Glenda Zahner.
“But we’ve gotten older,” says Ken Porter, “So we’re not as loud anymore.”
When I ask them what has inspired such a long tenure, they talk seriously about the importance of genetic diversity in plants. But they also jokingly credit the baking skills of Ed Hacskaylo. Each Thursday, Hacskaylo brings a plate of homemade sweets to share with the NS/S staff and volunteers.
“When they see me coming, they start salivating,” he jokes. Today, he’s brought his famous homemade pinoli bars—a mildly sweet dessert made from ground corn—and he promises to save me one.
“He’s about to turn 90, you know,” Zahner says, motioning towards Hacskaylo. Wearing a blue button-down shirt and running the heat sealer, Hacskaylo smiles modestly and then shrugs.
Hacskaylo has been volunteering with NS/S for 26 years, including a three-year term as Chairman of the Board of Directors. He also happens to be one of the world’s leading experts on mycorrhizae. After getting his PhD at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, he spent thirteen years as a plant physiology professor at George Washington University. For 28 years, he served as the head of a USDA Pioneer Research lab, studying the physiology of mycorrhizae. He has either authored or co-authored over 80 publications. In 1969, he planned the first annual North American Mycorrhizae Conference, which eventually became the International Mycorrhizae Conference. This summer, the conference celebrated its 46th year and presented Hacskaylo with a founder’s award.
The amount of knowledge and experience at this table is almost overwhelming. Ken, a retired wildlife biologist, worked in Colorado studying the same herd of mule deer for twelve years. Nancy Wall has had a vibrant career as a literature and theater teacher and now helps women in India write memoirs. Glenda, a retired plant ecologist and a self-proclaimed “bird brain,” knows her plant identification better than anyone Hacskaylo has ever met.
“At one point, we had four PhDs sitting around this table,” says Porter.
But academic degrees and professional careers aside, the institutional history harbored by these faithful volunteers feels especially important. Many of them joined NS/S when it was still a fledgling organization and have a strong emotional connection to the founders. Nancy Wall remembers sitting at the kitchen table of Mahina Drees and Barney Burns, when their home essentially served as the Native Seeds/SEARCH headquarters.
The volunteers serve as historical conduits to the very beginning of NS/S. They have witnessed an expansion of the seed collection, the purchase of the Conservation Farm in Patagonia, and the repeated migration of the headquarters and retail store. Week after week, year after year, the volunteers have shown up. One volunteer, Sam Michael, who has been volunteering twice each week for over fifteen years, commutes by bus for over an hour each way.
“We wouldn’t be able to do half of what we do without the volunteers,” says Sheryl Joy, the NS/S Seed Distribution Coordinator.
Joy, who has been working with NS/S for over four years, tells me that groups of volunteers congregate at the Conservation Center three days each week. They clean, weigh, and package seeds. They conduct germination tests. They label packages and address letters to donors. The volunteers serve as critical—though, often unseen—pillars of the organization. And as much as they enjoy sitting around a table talking about olive processing, there is something deeper that keeps them coming back.
Near the end of their volunteer time, The Rowdy Bunch is discussing the importance of preserving genetic constitution for future research. “We really don’t know all of the potential that rests in these seeds,” says Hacskaylo.
The group members nod their heads in agreement and then begin to discuss our reliance on hotter and drier landscapes for food production.
“It’s a unique environment where these [desert-adapted] crops are thriving,” says Hacskaylo, placing a bag of corn into the pile of finished seed packs. “They’re going to become pretty darn important globally.”
Learn more about volunteering with Native Seeds/SEARCH on their website.
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.
A Native Seeds/SEARCH Community Seed Grant is helping City High School’s SLUG project take root.