On a morning in April, a robust breeze whips down from the Patagonia Mountains, hoisting thin tree branches, dispatching loose hats, and bending the tall rye that stretches so luxuriously across the broad flats near the hamlet of Patagonia, an hour south of Tucson.
Within this mild tempest stands Evan Sofro, a latter-day farmer with his own cap pulled tight, and growing briefly opaque in thin gusts of dust. From the west we hear the low groan of a red tractor, busily churning up the pale gray soil of Arizona’s borderlands.
Purchased in 1997 by a Tucson-based group called Native Seeds/SEARCH, the 60-acre farm is a model of emergent agriculture: It’s almost completely organic and taps such methods as moisture-saving ground cover and hand pollination to produce the finest of crops. Yet the prime commodity here isn’t so much the fruit of the land as the seed stock it produces.
Thirty years after it was founded, Native Seeds/SEARCH still scatters emissaries throughout the borderlands, saving seeds from ancient plant lines that have adapted to the hot, dry conditions of our rugged region for over millennia. The organization officially celebrated the milestone at a Tucson gathering on April 20 with supporters and founders.
While the brains of NS/S are collected up in Tucson, this farm is its soul. And Evan Sofro is the farm’s chief sage. “We had some success with sunflowers out here last year,” he’s telling me, as he gazes across the undulating fields. And those bountiful crops of yellow were a very good thing, he says, because dying sunflowers emit chemicals that decimate the vine weeds routinely plaguing these acres.
A traditional farmer might just douse the fields with herbicide, killing those pesky vine weeds outright. But traditional is relative: Practices here predate modern agriculture by centuries. That brings us to the second, rapidly emerging mission of NS/S, which is sharing the message that sustainable, regionally adapted agriculture is indeed the future. And the seeds of that change start right here—diverse, profoundly tough, and, once they bear fruit, downright delicious.
Of course, imposing the past on the present can be arduous. Maintaining pristine seed lines often requires manually pollinating plants inside screened cages. And abandoning the use of chemicals means constantly outwitting invaders such as vine weeds. Or the squash bugs that regularly inundate this farm and are, each year, plucked away one at a time by hand.
Underlying it all are the seeds, some 2,000 varieties of them, gathered from the far-flung Hopi lands of Northern Arizona or the pueblos of New Mexico, from the parched villages of the Tohono O’odham, or from Tarahumara hamlets deep in the canyon lands of Chihuahua.
Bill McDorman, the executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH since 2011, is part seed expert and part alternative-agro evangelist. He’s been in the seed-saving trenches since 1984, when he founded Seeds Trust, a company dedicated to genetic conservation and non-hybrid seed strains. He also founded the International Seed Saving Institute, which takes its message—and its seeds—to 15 countries around the world. He says coming to NS/S is the culmination of his life-long journey to promote the preservation of regionally adapted and traditional seeds.
Now he expounds his tireless advocacy in a new role. Between junkets to farm groups around the country, he’s a hard man to catch. But when you do, his passion is electric; his gospel, well-tread.
Three companies control more than half of the world’s seed stocks, he says. Ten companies control more than 75 percent. The price of corn seed went up 23 percent last year. That’s a bigger jump, he says, than at any time in recorded history. In some parts of the nation, there is only one dealer selling one type of corn, period. Small farmers need to reclaim their agricultural legacy. “We’re part of a new eco-agriculture,” McDorman says. “All this stuff is starting to rise. People are nervous when they don’t know where their seeds or their food is coming from.”
And if the planet is looking for answers, he says, it can find a few of them here. He calls NS/S “one of best examples, worldwide, for a regional seed-solution model.”
“Nothing is sustainable unless we change our food system,” he says, “and the change is probably going to be regional. Even investment bankers are seeing that we’re going to have to make agriculture smaller to make it more ecological.” And more diverse: “What would it be like if one company owned all the world’s oil or steel?” he says. “That’s what we’ve allowed to happened to our food and seed systems.”
McDorman says his group is part of the backlash. In fact, NS/S was riding this trend-line before it even existed. “We just happen to have had a group of people who started doing that 30 years ago,” he says. “They left Tucson with this great treasure-chest we can start from, to design new agriculture that has cultural history and flavor that no one else in the world has.”
Of course, location is everything: McDorman calls Tucson the “queen site” of ancient seed lines, with some 2,000 varieties coming from more than 50 tribes.
Long days, rough roads
It was the late 1970s, and many traditional seed lines were fading from the landscape because of neglect and the growth of industrial, one-size-fits-all seed producers. At the time, Barney Burns, an anthropologist by training and crafts dealer by trade, had already long been roaming the indigenous communities of Northern Mexico in search of folk art. But his travels also exposed him to this looming crisis, and along with his partner and eventual wife Mahina Drees, he began gathering seeds from villages he visited. Drees recalls long days and rough roads through the Mexican backcountry, in an era when “growing local” had little cachet beyond agriculture wonks and back-to-the-earth hippies. “Now every body is interested in growing their own food,” she says. “I guess it must have just been latent in people’s minds at that time.”
“We certainly acknowledge the intelligence of crops we steward,” Starr says. “The agriculture in this area goes farther back than any other place in the country, and the seed (strains) we’re stewarding can be thousands of years old.”
Either way, the idea soon caught on. “People heard what we were doing and thought it sounded neat,” says Drees. “We got all of our friends to give us a little money, and Gary got us a grant.” That’s Gary Paul Nabhan, a noted Tucson enthnobotanist and food activist, who had been traveling along with Drees and Burns with Nabhan’s then wife, Karen Reichhardt. The grant came from The National Center for Appropriate Technology. As part of the grant, the group was tasked with “growing out traditional crops in order to supply seeds to native farmers,” Drees says. “But it received a lot of interest beyond the people we were supplying seeds to. People wanted more and more.”
Their first catalogue was one page long, front and back, with about 50 seed types for sale or donation to tribal communities. Today, that catalogue has grown to 50 pages, with 200 varieties of seeds for sale. Hundreds more varieties are offered through the NS/S website.
The local-food movement has, among its many tenets, the notion that nutritional security depends upon a community or regional approach to agriculture. As the number of farms marketing their produce directly to consumers has jumped from 86,000 in the early 1990s to approximately 136,000 today, as the ranks of farmers’ markets nearly doubled between 1998 and 2009, from 2,756 to 5,274, NS/S has seen its reach rise as well. With an annual budget now approaching $1 million, up from $50,000 to $60,000 in the early days, it has added staff, redoubled its emphasis on sustainable agriculture and, in the process, inspired a whole new generation of local-food aficionados.
Belle Starr is deputy director of NS/S. She describes a small approach to the big agricultural picture. “We’re experimenting with different type of strategies,” she says, “and looking at in terms of our ecological footprint.”
That also involves great respect for the handiwork of nature. “We certainly acknowledge the intelligence of crops we steward,” Starr says. “The agriculture in this area goes farther back than any other place in the country, and the seed (strains) we’re stewarding can be thousands of years old. We’ve saved a rich diversity, specifically from this region.”
In addition to preserving ancient seed lines, the group’s dedication to regional culture is displayed through its numerous, innovative projects. “We were the first to conserve the wild relatives of domestic crops with the chile preserve near Tucson,” says NS/S co-founder Gary Nabhan. “We helped start the Traditional Native American Farmers Association that continues to this day. We were also the first group to make a connection between native foods and how they protect people from diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases.”
The Desert Foods for Diabetes Program began in 1990 with a $28,000 grant from the Ruth Mott Fund. The project is geared towards Native Americans in the Southwest who suffer the world’s highest rate of diabetes—an epidemic doctors largely attribute to the abandonment of a traditional diet centered around desert seeds, cactus and beans.
In 1991, NS/S began the Arizona Heirloom Fruit and Nut Regis-TREE project, aimed at honoring and propagating perennial folk tree varieties found throughout the region—trees with progenitors dating from the era of Spanish missionaries centuries before.
In 1992, the group boosted its outreach to Native American communities by establishing the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, which hosted workshops in wellness, perma-culture, sustainable farming and seed saving. Seven years later, NS/S fought for the protection of native chiles found growing in the mountains south of Tucson; a 2,500-acre parcel on the Coronado National Forest is now called the Wild Chile Botanical Area. It marked the first time that the federal government had set aside habitat to preserve the wild relatives of domestic crops.
Purchase of the Conservation Farm in 1997 also marked a major step forward. Finally, the group could conduct large grow-outs to expand its seed banks and replenish aging varieties. This new ability has resulted in no fewer than 146 “accessions,” or new seed collections produced from traditional stock.
And two years ago, NS/S began its now-popular Seed School Program; the first class drew 14 students for six days of intensive workshops on sustainable agriculture and how to create seed banks in their own communities. Demand for the classes has since spiked, with total attendance nearing 280. The initial concept has also expanded to include a Grain School, a Seed Library School, and a special session focused on Native Americans called Seed Keepers.
“The impact has been national and global,” says Nabhan, who sees an attendant social shift from the days when NS/S was first started. “Seeds at time—wild and heirloom—were simply being treated as material for plant breeders. We were among the first groups to say that the food from these seeds have incredible taste, and incredible cultural stories. They link us to history, and the regional adaptation to extreme climatic conditions. Just as food is linked to place, seeds are linked to place.”
He notes that the word is out: NS/S has now distributed its millionth seed packet.
There was always crooked-neck
squash under our beds.
The space under the bed met the criteria
of a cool, dark, dry place.
These large, hard-skinned squash
with speckled, serrated,
green and yellow designs shared
space under our beds
with new cowboy boots, lost
socks, forgotten toys,
dust and little spiders.
The squash rested under there with
our memory of summer.
Awaiting winter darkness.
With the cold weather, we split the
hard skin and expose the
rich yellow meat inside, the bounty
of large seeds entangled
in the wetness of their origin.
We saved the seeds for next summer.
We eat the soft, sweet meat of the winter squash.
We swallow the warmth of summer.
Thirty years and growing
This 30-year milestone is a culmination of a journey that began at a stone cottage belonging to Mahina Drees. Eventually, Native Seeds moved its operation to the Tucson Botanical Gardens, and in 1993 purchased the nearby Sylvester property, with two adobe buildings and a three-quarter-acre plot in midtown Tucson. Four years later, the group opened a popular retail outlet on Fourth Avenue, and has since relocated its store to North Campbell Avenue.
Thanks to generous donors, in 2010 the group dedicated its $1.4 million, 5,200-square-foot Agricultural Conservation Center and Seed Bank in Tucson. Stretching across an airy patch of county land near the Santa Catalina Mountains, this headquarters features 600 square feet of pristine cold storage and a 150-square foot freezer. On any given day it is a well-organized beehive of activity, with volunteers filling seed packets or cataloguing the countless varieties. The seed bank now includes nearly 2,000 unique strains from across the Southwest, including traditional crops utilized as food, fiber and dye by many Native American tribes, including the Apache, Gila River Pima, Havasupai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mayo, Mojave, Mountain Pima, Navajo, Tarahumara, and Tohono O’odham.
Belle Star says that the time is right for an alternative to conglomerate farming and the ascendancy of groups such as NS/S. “The economic wind is blowing our way. We really feel that we’re in the right place at the right time.”
Turning the clock forward
The wind has dropped a notch back at the farm, where Evan Sofro is heading off to check on his interns. Inside the barn, the cheerful group of 20-somethings are busily busting up gourds to glean the seeds. And one senses that it’s been a damn good gourd year, since the vegetables appear to be everywhere in this building, either hanging from the ceiling in nets, or broken into shards that carpet the floor.
On the other side of the room is a tub half-filled with corn, from which seeds will be likewise plucked. These kernels represent the best of adaptations to our desert climate. They also delineate the past and the future for NS/S.
To Sofro, this is nothing short of a revolution underway, in a nation where food crops have typically been imposed upon places rather than emerging from them. “We are trying to make our agriculture regionally adapted, and create a model for what arid lands agriculture can be like,” he says. “We’re also moving into increased production.”
Of course, down on this farm, everything is relative. It’s a place where plants are routinely hand-pollinated, often with the swirl of a make-up brush. Three small tractors work the fields, prepping the soil beds for this crop or that.
“We keep 150 corn varieties on the farm,” Sofro is telling me, as he runs his hands across a cob. And that corn, he says, is delicious. Delicious enough, in fact, that three batches of corn tortillas are made fresh here each day, and three batches are promptly eaten. As production of other crops expand, he says, food will increasingly be sold or donated, to broaden support and understanding of the NS/S mission.
But in the end, it’s simply a matter of turning the clock back to the future. As we walk towards the fields, Sofro explains that he just returned from visiting Tarahumara villages in the Sierra Madre, where traditional farmers maintain vibrant crops by continuously trading seeds among one another.
“In Tarahumara country, if you talked about genetic diversity and genetic bottlenecking, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about,” he says. “But their practice is beautiful. They have this whole different way of looking at it. And they still achieve the same goal in the end, which is genetic diversity.
“We put so much research and effort,” he says, “into relearning what we already knew.”
With that, the wind kicks up a small dust cloud, and the vision of Native Seeds is briefly blurred.
But only briefly. ✜
Tim Vanderpool is a Tucson-based writer.