No. 46, Fall/Winter 1999
Tools for Small Farmers
by Suzanne Nelson
"NS/S utilizes a multi-pronged approach to accomplish its overall mission of conserving crop genetic diversity. Current conservation programs include both ex situ and in situ components, all of which deal with supporting the conservation of crop diversity. . .. Other programs focus on issues related to conserving crop diversity, such as maintaining agricultural traditions, creating markets for local products, promoting native foods and food products to improve basic health and nutrition needs, or recording traditional knowledge associated with the crops for use by future generations of Native American and other farmers. "
In the late 1970's, a gardening project designed to increase food self-sufficiency and improve nutrition on the Tohono O'odham reservation west of Tucson, Arizona, would eventually lead to the establishment of a major leader in the heirloom seed movement. The Sonoran Desert has been home to the O'odham peoples for centuries. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, the Hohokam, they perfected a system of agriculture -- including a palette of crops -- suited to the high temperatures and minimal rainfall characteristic of the region. As late as 1925 the Tohono O'odham were cultivating 10,000 acres with traditional floodwater methods. In the early 1980's, only a few scattered plots remained. Today, there are virtually none.
Though grateful for the bounty of "western" crops such as broccoli, carrots, and lettuce utilized as part of the garden project sixteen years ago, many Tohono O'odham elders wistfully remembered the squash they had known as children -- the squash their parents and grandparents had grown -- and lamented their inability to find seeds of their traditional crops. Through the efforts of two individuals involved with the garden project, Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees, these squash seeds were eventually "found" at other locations on the reservation and brought back to the O'odham elders. Thus were the seeds of Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) planted.
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The Three Sisters -- maize, bean and squash -- were the centerpiece of Native American agriculture. However, other unique and often rare crop varieties were also utilized. Red-seeded amaranth used to dye piki bread and black-seeded sunflowers used as a dye by the Hopi, corn that matures in only 60 days and drought-adapted tepary beans grown by the O'odham, sunflowers containing genes for resistance to a commercially devastating sunflower rust, chia (an important source of protein, oil, and fiber for the O'odham), and red-seeded watermelons all contribute to the rich genetic legacy of the region. Ensuring that the seeds of these and many other traditional crops are conserved and maintained lies at the core of our efforts.
Saving seeds in frozen storage, however, is only part of the picture. The ultimate conservation of these heirloom crops lies with their continued use in the fields of farmers whose ancestors stewarded them through thousands of years of crop domestication. These land races, or farmers' varieties, have resulted from both natural and farmer selection pressures through time and are well adapted to particular microhabitats -- the specific combination of biotic and abiotic influences found within different farmers' fields. Farmers have long recognized the importance of diversity, for it is precisely this diversity that allows at least some plants to produce even when confronted by insects, diseases, alkaline soils and drought.
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Helping farmers stay on their land is a primary goal of NS/S. Traditional farmers are a stabilizing force in both Native American and other farming communities. They conserve historic seeds adapted to local conditions, keep alive various culinary practices and agricultural traditions, donate crops for ceremonies and feast days, and feed extended families from their fields. For communities sustained by agriculture, a loss of agricultural traditions may also be accompanied by a loss of traditional knowledge and language, i.e., a loss of cultural identity.
In 1992, NS/S helped establish The Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA), a mutual support network bringing Native American farmers together to exchange ideas and discuss solutions to common problems. TNAFA focuses on educating young Native Americans about traditional farming and developing strategies to market Native American food products to Santa Fe-based restaurants specializing in southwestern cuisine. In 1996, fiscal sponsorship of TNAFA transferred to the Seventh Generation Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping other Native American organizations. Currently, TNAFA is based in Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico and boasts a membership of approximately 150 farming families in New Mexico and Arizona.
Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA) is a non-profit organization that focuses on sustainable community development and cultural revitalization within O'odham communities. TOCA works to bring O'odham youth and elders together, stressing the importance of growing traditional O'odham crops such as 60-day corn, tepary beans, and devil's claw -- used in traditional basket designs. NS/S has helped TOCA promote and establish gardens -- both community and individual gardens -- by providing seeds of traditional O'odham crops that are often difficult to find in cultivation on the reservation today. TOCA is also working with an isolated O'odham village to re-establish traditional floodwater farming. Through these and other efforts, the bonds between present-day O'odham and their ancestors are strengthened, helping to preserve and maintain both unique genetic and cultural diversity.
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Knowledge, like seeds, cannot flourish under the "frozen" storage conditions of an archive. The intent of the CMB is to provide young Native Americans and others the opportunity to learn about crop diversity, to view pictures of specific crops, to read about where the crops were collected, and to listen to elders describe in their native language how to plant, harvest, and use the crops. As a result, the agricultural traditions of any one culture may continue to be passed from generation to generation, ultimately helping to conserve for all of humankind the rich genetic legacy passed on by 10,000 years of farming traditions.
More information about NS/S is available from the NS/S web site cited below in Additional Web Resources; or visit the NS/S retail store located at 526 N. 4th Ave., Tucson, Arizona, USA; phone: +1 (520) 622-5561.
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Suzanne Nelson is Director of Conservation and Seed Bank Curator for Native Seeds/SEARCH. You can reach her for comment at:
526 N. 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85705
Tel: (520) 622-5561
Fax: (520) 622-5591
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The Native Seeds/SEARCH web site offers information on NS/S programs and projects, current events, organizational history, and the NS/S newsletter "Seedhead News." In addition, the site provides an online catalog of seeds available through the organization.
Food Chain Gang
This August 1999 article from the Tucson Weekly focuses on the importance of organizations like NS/S in preserving genetic diversity.
By the Prophet of the Earth: Ethnobotany of the Pima
This book by L.S.M. Curtin, originally published in 1949, provides a great deal of information about the O'odham peoples' traditional uses of plants. The book is out of print, but thanks to the University of Arizona Press the entire text is available online.
SEPASAL is a major and unique database on useful "wild" and semi-domesticated plants of tropical and subtropical drylands, and is maintained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The database contains information on more than 6200 useful dryland species, excluding major crops.
Using Diversity: Enhancing and Maintaining Genetic Resources On-Farm
This online book from IDRC comprises the proceedings of a 1995 workshop on "Using Diversity." The workshop brought together scientists, farmers and NGO workers from across South Asia who share the conviction that genetic diversity, on-farm, is key to rural people's food security and that farmers must be involved in its maintenance and enhancement.
Seedsaving and Seedsaver's Resources
This directory site, created by Ute Bohnsack provides links to an immense number of web resources on seed saving that are of potential interest to small farmers and home gardeners alike.
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