With current concern about genetically modified seeds, local seed preservation is more important than ever.
The human relationship with seeds is one of the most profound connections that people can have, says Miguel Santistevan, farmer and activist.
"Some people approach seeds as a means of production," he says. "But when instead we see the relationship as seed stewardship that has been honored for generations and can be passed on to our kids, we realize the spiritual, biological and evolutionary dimensions. We see the covenant with plants and animals as a way to create consciousness, dance, art and song."
Recognizing and honoring that covenant are part of the seed exchanges that take place every spring in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Seed savers form a vital part of the effort to foster and share heritage seeds from the region.
Santistevan's love of the land brought him home to Taos. He grew up in Albuquerque but visited his grandparents' farm in Taos over spring and summer breaks. "I would play in the acequia and get all muddy while my grandfather watered the garden and the alfalfa fields," he remembers.
Today Santistevan tends those same fields and lives in the house built by his grandparents. Through his farm called Sol Feliz and his nonprofit AIRE (Agriculture Implementation Research and Education), he offers farm tours and demonstrations of permaculture (solfelizfarm.org).
Among his interests is the history of the seeds that are found in the Taos Valley. "There are seeds from the time of traditional Puebloan culture, as well as those that came with Spanish and Mexicano settlers who brought more seeds into the historical period. We have Calabaza Mexicana and Melon Mexicaoa, for example. It is incredibly interesting to see how these ancestral seeds have survived alongside humans," he adds.
In addition to 18 years of experience farming, Santistevan has degrees and certifications in biology, ecology and other agricultural-related disciplines. "I've been interested in seeds since my master's degree study in ecology with an emphasis on agriculture. My thesis was about the varieties of corn and crops on the acequias in Northern New Mexico. I'm interested in all the seeds in the tool box that connect us to the Pueblo and acequia cultures," he says. "We have good seed material to start with because our climate has always been extreme."
He focuses his efforts on growing food for his own family and working cooperatively with the schools on projects that connect kids to agriculture. "I grow heritage grains like amaranth and buckwheat. Some people see buckwheat as a cover crop, but I grow it for food as a source of food security. I make waffles for my kids for breakfast. I don't have the volume to sell my crops. It is worth it to grow crops for my kids and other people's kids and to try to get other people to grow food for their families, too."
Buckwheat was one of a handful of few crops that did well in last year's dry summer, along with peas. Although the garlic did suffer, it made it through a fall planting. Increasingly, Santistevan wants to focus on frost-tolerant plants that can be planted early to take advantage of spring moisture like peas, along with fava and garbanzo beans and fall crops like winter wheat and rye.
As part of his journey home to Taos, Santistevan went to Los Alamos for high school. He became troubled by the legacy of the atomic bomb development there. He decided that his way to search for solutions would be to become an activist and a farmer. "While others are working on addressing our problems, I want to work on solutions, so that when the problems are addressed there will be food and we can eat at one big table. Seeds are like an umbilical cord that connects us all," he says.
Saving seeds for food is also the focus of local and national efforts of the Indigenous Seed Keepers, which is a program of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, says Pati Martinson. She is the interim director of NAFSA and cofounder, along with Terrie Bad Hand, of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC).
"Local and indigenous seeds are often the same thing," says Martinson, who is of Lakota and French descent. "The goal of NAFSA is for seeds to be preserved and passed on. We work with indigenous seed savers to preserve indigenous and all original seeds."
In that group of foods are potatoes, tomatoes, corn and heirloom squash and beans - the last three being part of the "three sisters." Martinson explains that one of the interesting stories about seeds is the way they were shared along indigenous trade routes. "It is interesting to follow the seeds and ask how did this seed get there? The trade routes show the life of seeds and how corn from Mexico made its way here." She explains that although the climate is different in Mexico than here, the seeds will adapt but retain the essence of the original plant.
Martinson adds there is evidence that cacao came to Chaco Canyon from the Mayan lands to the south and there are examples of seafood that traveled from the far north all the way south.
With current concern about genetically modified seeds, local seed preservation is more important than ever. "Most of us are concerned about the altering of DNA of seeds," says Martinson." It makes seed sharing all the more essential for life and the life of the planet. It is the responsibility of humans to be seed savers and keepers."
Part of the story is the return of seeds back to their original communities. Known as seed rematriation, this was the process of the return of Taos Pueblo squash last fall. In her article "The Long Way Home: Seed Rematriation at Taos Pueblo," on the NAFSA website, nativefoodalliance.org, seed keeper Rowen White (Mohawk) writes:
"Across Turtle Island (North America), there is a growing intergenerational movement of indigenous people proud to carry the message of the grand rematriation of seeds and foods back into our indigenous communities. Some having been missing from our communities for centuries; carried on long journeys in smoky buckskin pouches, upon the necks of peoples who were forced to relocate from the land of their births, their ancestral grounds. Generations later, these seeds are now coming back home; from the vaults of public institutions, seed banks, universities, seed keeper collections and some laying upon dusty pantry shelves of foresighted elders, seeds patiently sleeping and dreaming. Seeds waiting for loving hands to patiently place them into welcoming soil once more so that they can continue to fulfill their original agreement to help feed the people. … As part of the closing circle of the Southwest Intertribal Food Summit, hosted by NAFSA, TCEDC, Red Willow Farm and Taos Pueblo, precious Taos Pueblo squash seeds were safely gifted back into the loving care of elders and farmers here in this beautiful Pueblo village."
Taos County Economic Development Corporation
Martinson and Bad Hand established TCEDC in 1987 to support the food, land and cultures of the people of Northern New Mexico.
The TCEDC has sponsored seed exchanges in the past. Martinson points out that there is an element of trust when you trade seeds with others. Although there are scientific tests to confirm whether a seed has been altered, you can also start a seedling in a secluded area as a test. Martinson says that if there are no seeds produced after the first year, it may be a genetically modified seed.
The TCEDC continues to support Native food growing through programs like the garden program internship for Native youth ages 15-21. Although it was a rough growing season last year for the young gardeners in the program, coordinator Tiana Suazo says, "I have been cleaning seeds starting in the fall and throughout the winter. I don't have a large variety or amount of seeds in my collection, mostly due to the drought we experienced this summer. I lost some crops before they were able to produce seeds. I was able to get some winter squash, watermelon, corn, kale and some beans. Although the drought wasn't the best thing, the seeds I did collect from the plants that survived will be more equipped to handle a drought."
Taos Seed Exchange
For everyone who is excited about the potential for a much wetter summer this year, there are sources of seeds in Taos. The Taos Seed Exchange is a free community service for home gardeners to swap seeds. Seed stations are currently located at the Habitat ReStore at 16 State Road 522 just north of the "old blinking light" and Re-Threads at 302 Paseo del Pueblo Sur. There are locally grown seeds, as well as those that have come from elsewhere.
Taos Seed Exchange founder Nan Fischer says, "In 2013, this started out as an idea to put a cardboard box, some seeds and some envelopes in one location. It quickly blossomed to several locations and expands every year. Locations vary depending on how many seed there is to distribute."
Fischer is adding some of her own local seeds. She says, "I have local peppers like pequin, Velarde peppers, which were really prolific - some hot, some sweet - sometimes on the same plant, along with Chimayo peppers and dry beans and tomatoes." She says seeds make great Valentine's Day gifts. Find the Taos Seed Exchange on Facebook.
Fischer's company Sweetly Seeds is offering plant starts this spring and she is including a free packet of seeds with any purchase. She is planning a plant sale and seed exchange this spring. Contact email@example.com or visit nannieappleseed.wordpress.com.
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