Nomadic Nurseries, Guerrilla Grafters, and SNAP Seed Sowers

How food biodiversity can help the poor in our communities.

November 1, 2013

Food JusticeIssue 3: November/December 2013

Every time I drive through poverty-stricken areas of our state—our urban barrios, our boarded-up dust bowl farm towns—I wonder how a phrase like “conserving food biodiversity” can even make sense to the poor and hungry in our midst, who simply are looking for bread to eat today. And yet, I remain haunted by the powerful words once spoken by my Italian friend Serena Milano who coordinates the international Ark of Taste list of endangered foods for the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity:

“Threatened by the homogenization brought on by industrial production, the biodiversity of the planet is in danger. But biodiversity can’t be saved by scientists alone, nor by the powerful of the world, because it is of no interest to the market. And it’s probable that Noah won’t be arriving with his Ark at any time in the near future. This battle, therefore, is one that needs to be taken up by us, together with all the people we manage to involve, on our lands, every day. Because the battle to save biodiversity isn’t like any other battle. It’s the battle for the life of our planet.”

Does Milano’s phrase “on our lands” disempower the landless, the homeless, the rentees, the house sitters, and streetwalkers from participating in this effort, in the growing and eating of diverse food plants and animals?

For a long time, I believed that the goal of returning diverse foodstuffs to our tables was too lofty to speak about to the homeless and hungry; but lately, I’ve had second thoughts. In fact, I have now come to believe that getting fresh, diverse, and nutritious foods into the hands of the nutritionally-at-risk is the highest goal that we can set for change in our food system.

A few years ago, when I was in transition between jobs and moving between a small town in northern Arizona to another in southern Arizona, I found myself landless, housesitting and renting a place in South Tucson, and later, two more near Sonoita. After regularly raising a garden, a flock of heritage turkeys and a herd of Navajo-Churro sheep at my previous residence outside of Flagstaff, I felt disoriented—if not despondent—that I had little chance to carry on such activities while in transition.

Grafting illustration by Robert J. Long

Grafting illustration by Robert J. Long

But a telephone call from my friend Jesus Garcia broke me out of my self-pitying stupor and got me back in action. Jesus alerted to me to an upcoming sale of heirloom fruit tree saplings—figs, quinces, pomegranates, and grapes—over at Desert Survivors Native Plant Nursery in downtown Tucson. For discount prices, I purchased a half dozen fruit trees, loaded them into my beat-up pick-up truck, and plopped them down in the driveway of the house that my daughter and I happened to be renting in South Tucson.

What I didn’t know at the time is that any low-income person eligible for a SNAP program food purchase card can use that card to purchase fruit tree saplings, seed starts, or seeds themselves from farmers’ market vendors to grow their own food instead of using it up on a single bag of fresh food. Thanks to food justice activist David Bowman Simon of SNAP Gardens, more and more farmers’ markets are helping low income families purchase fruit trees to secure their own food futures.

After I arrived home with an armful of heirloom tree saplings, I wondered, “What am I going do with these trees if we don’t find an affordable place to buy for another year or two?”

Many others—from the Fig Man of Albuquerque to the Guerrilla Grafter of San Francisco—had figured it out long before I finally did. I realized I could create a nomadic nursery.

A what? With very little space, sophisticated skills, or time investment, nearly any person can take cuttings off figs or pomegranates, dowse them with rooting hormones, insert them in gallon cans, plastic jugs, or recycled pots, and begin a fruit tree nursery. Some of these tree saplings will produce good fruit by their second or third year, others take five to seven, but no matter—you can also prune cuttings, root them, and sell them at farmers’ markets for as much as $30 a tree. Five to six six-inch cuttings pruned off the same sapling—when rooted and triggered into producing leaves and new shoots—can bring in $150 total in one season. And the rarer the tree variety—the more unique the fruit and the richer its story—the more likely it is that you can sell it for $50 or $100 a tree.

Yes, telling the stories behind the tree are what can make an initially poor nurseryman a little richer, and enrich his customers as well. My friend Lloyd Kreitzer, the Fig Man of Albuquerque, says: “At one of the farmers’ markets that I regularly go to and talk about the great diversity of figs I offer, a person listened to me for a bit and then must have begun to wonder whether all the varieties I was selling had such rich stories to go along with them. She asked me: ‘Don’t you have a single fig that doesn’t come with a story?’

“I shrugged and replied, ‘In all the years I’ve been collecting, growing, and selling different figs, I don’t think I’ve ever met one that comes that way.’”

By the time I moved out of South Tucson to Sonoita, I had a couple dozen heirloom fruit trees in my mobile nursery, enough to require two trips in my pickup to move them all. Today, they form the foundation stock of my backyard orchard and incipient nursery in Patagonia, which now harbors more than 75 distinct varieties of fruits, nuts, and olives.

Propagating illustration by Robert J. Long

Propagating illustration by Robert J. Long

And yet, it wasn’t until I met Tara Hui of San Francisco’s Guerrilla Grafters that I realized that I hadn’t needed a driveway or a pickup truck to start a makeshift nursery.

“We need diverse, delicious street trees for street people,” Tara told an audience of 140 Tucsonans on a hot August night. What Guerrilla Grafters do is to take cuttings of delicious, nutritious, flavorful fruits and “topwork” them onto existing trees in public spaces—parks, schoolyards, housing development entryways—by grafting the new varieties onto already mature branches of ornamental flowering plums, crabapples, or bitter oranges planted merely for “decoration.” A tree steward living in the immediate neighborhood is assigned to water, prune, and protect the tree so that its fruit eventually becomes accessible to anyone walking past it during the season of ripening and harvest.

Of course, there are time lags in producing such fruit, as trees do not necessary provide the almost “instant” gratification and sustenance that an annual vegetable or root crop might offer. Now, more than ever before, southern Arizonans can obtain diverse heirloom seeds for “free,” as well as finding affordable or donated space in which to plant them. One place to start is with the Community Gardens of Tucson organization, which can help you find plantable space near where you live or work.

But that’s not all. The Pima County Public Library has become one of the first county library systems in the country to establish “seed libraries,” which now function in eight of its branches. They offer a remarkably diverse array of heirloom vegetable seeds for free to anyone willing to grow them and return part of their seed harvest back to the library. Small Arizona seed outlets such as Aravaipa Heirlooms and Native Seeds/SEARCH are among the donors of quality, open-pollinated GMO seeds offered through the libraries.

As Native Seeds/SEARCH Director Bill McDorman said, “The combination of seeds and libraries into seed libraries may give us the most powerful tool we have to remain American in this age of privatization and monopoly.”

Although not every person in southern Arizona will immediately be able to take advantage of these strategies for seed democratization and fruit tree access, these diverse food resources are no longer out of economic reach or direct access for the poor and landless. Arizona remains among the three states with the highest levels of childhood food insecurity in the nation; as a community, we must get serious about offering them more to eat than cake, Cheetos, and corn chips. ✜;

Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity.

Illustration by Robert J Long

Previous Post

A Ranch’s Observation

Next Post

Forged Ingenuity