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 year-end donation, and be sure to stop by their retail store or online shop for one-of-kind gifts this holiday season. This is the fifth and final post in our series.
It’s mid-afternoon the week before Christmas, and my son and I are winding along Route 83 towards Sonoita. This time of year, the grass on either side of the road is a glowing golden carpet. When we reach Sonoita, we drive southwest towards the tiny town of Patagonia, home of the 60-acre Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm. The driveway to the farm dips down into a wash, and the belly of my car shifts over the rocks. When we emerge, Red Mountain rises into view through the windshield.
I find Morgan Parsons, NS/S Conservation Farm Manager, running corn through a shelling machine. His dog, Dublin, lies on the ground beside him, tongue lolling out of his mouth.
“The pollination on these wasn’t so great this year,” Parsons says, explaining that he’s running the cobs through the machine more slowly than usual in order to capture every kernel.
Parsons scoops up a handful of seed and holds it out. In the bright afternoon sunlight, the loose Santo Domingo Rainbow Corn shines red and yellow in his palm. We are standing in the doorway of a long metal building, beneath a cage of dried gourds suspended from the ceiling. From the wire of the cage, Parsons has hung three of his grandmother’s giant Christmas ornaments.
Originally from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Parsons represents a new generation of farmers looking for ways to gain experience farming and stewarding land. For Parsons, who eventually would like to own his own farm, the Conservation Farm serves as a valuable stepping stone. “I didn’t grow up with a trust fund or inherit land,” he tells me, “So this is the best way to go about it.”
I follow Parsons and Dublin out into the field, where newly-planted beans and peas are just beginning to germinate. Although the winter grow-out is significantly less than summer, Parsons has planted sections of the field, hoophouse, and isolation tents (used to avoid cross-pollination) with peas, lentils, garbanzo and fava beans, dill, cilantro, orach, and wild mustard.
The farm is a pallet of understated winter browns. Though I’m visiting on a warm sunny day, the week has brought overnight temperatures of 20 degrees. At one o’clock, there’s still a patch of ice in the shade of the giant combine. Parsons says he spends much of the winter processing seed, shelling, threshing, and working on plans for spring and summer grow-outs. But winter also means frozen hands, the maintenance of farm machinery, and the constant repair of busted irrigation.
As we walk, Parsons points out a field of dead sorghum stalks. He explains that the sorghum was a successful attempt to outcompete the field bindweed, which has long been a problem for the farm. Since joining Native Seeds/SEARCH two years ago as an equipment operator, Parsons has worked with former farm managers and staff to increase the farm’s access to equipment and more efficient technology appropriate for a small-scale seed operation. Parsons says he is especially invested in maintaining the farm’s 5-year run without chemical pesticide use, building soil through cover cropping, and using equipment that is less disruptive to the soil structure.
Determining seed grow-outs is akin to a giant puzzle. Seeds are grown at the farm for two reasons—in order to bulk up distribution stock and to regenerate seeds from the original collection from the 1980s. And as Matthew Kost, NS/S Conservation Manager, says, “determining the accessions for each is based on algorithms and art.”
Kost explains that the distribution algorithm is based primarily on sales data, which makes sense—more popular seeds need to be grown out more frequently in order to satisfy consumer demand. But the regeneration algorithm is based on several variables, including geographical location where the original seeds were collected, the health of current regeneration samples, how many samples have been collected from a specific accession, and the rarity of a particular species within the NS/S collection.
When developing the planting design for a particular season, communication between the farm and the Conservation Center is vital. Kost and Parsons juggle multiple variables, including isolation distances demanded by each species in order to avoid cross-pollination. Some species only need to be isolated by 50 feet, like peas, while others need to be separated by miles in order to maintain purity in the seed.
Kost says that the Conservation Farm is central to the mission of Native Seeds/SEARCH. “Not only does the farm provide a location for regenerating seeds,” he says, “but it provides a location to educate others on sustainable agricultural practices with seed saving at the core.”
Parsons agrees. “What is a seed conservation organization without a farm?” he says.
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.
The volunteers of Native Seeds/SEARCH serve as critical–though often unseen–pillars of the organization.