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Preserved seeds restore aboriginal food systems

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TUCSON, Ariz. - ''To own a bit of ground, to scratch it with a hoe, to plant seeds and watch the renewal of life - this is the commonest delight of the race, the most satisfactory thing a man can do.''

Written nearly 150 years ago, those words hold the eternal truth of sowing and reaping, the basis for humanitarian thought and affirmative action demonstrated by Native Seeds/SEARCH in southern Arizona.

In 1983, four Tucsonans involved with feeding the hungry began to worry that seed stock for future crops was disappearing. They contributed $100 each to cover the cost of locating 40 varieties of endangered seeds to ensure those specific strains would not permanently disappear. Now, nearly 25 years later, 2,000 varieties of seeds have been saved from extinction.

''If we had to duplicate our seed collection today, it would be impossible because many of the originals are no longer available,'' said Barney Burns, one of the original founders. ''Ours is a treasure trove that provides an irreplaceable genetic library to draw on as a basis for sustainable, environmentally-friendly Native American agriculture of the future.''

''These seeds represent cultures that have survived for thousands of years in the Southwest,'' said Kevin Dahl, executive director of the organization. ''Ancient farmers figured out how to be successful in pretty marginal growing conditions - little water, soil heavy in alkalinity, hot growing conditions. It wasn't an easy task.''

Native Seeds/SEARCH arose as a result of requests from the Tohono O'odham reservation, some 2-1/2 million acres of desert bordering Arizona and Mexico. The O'odham had once cultivated native seeds through traditional floodwater methods, but cultural change and environmental destruction had reduced surviving farms to only a few scattered plots. And while some community members felt a need to continue growing specialized corn, beans and squash, they could not locate the seeds of their ancestors. Fortunately, as a regional seed bank and a leader in the heirloom seed movement, Native Seeds/SEARCH could.

''We've collected seeds from over 30 different cultural groups and have successfully saved over two thousand varieties,'' Dahl said. ''Corn is the biggest collection we have, about 600 accessions or varieties collected from a specific locale. In a Southwest crop complex, the Three Sisters [corn , beans and squash] were of greatest importance because they're very productive. Corn provides lots of carbohydrates. Beans provide a lot of protein. And squash gives up a lot of nutrition. Grown together as companion crops, all three store well for a long time.

''We steward these precious seeds, true links to the past,'' Dahl said. ''We support the role these seeds play in the diverse cultures of the region and these remaining pockets of diversity are worth seeking out and saving. This is living heritage and we need to maintain this palate of genetic material.''

Farm land is being reclaimed at the San Xavier Tribal Farm Cooperative south of Tucson and traditional fields are being planted again with traditional crops and by the Tohono O'odham Community Action group in Sells, where planting is done by hand and without chemicals. Before the project began a decade ago, 100 pounds of beans was an achievement. A recent harvest brought in 10,000 pounds.

''TOCA supplies tepary beans to all their food banks,'' Dahl said. ''So when people on the nation get food boxes, the beans are included as part of restoring the food system. It's all part of the creation of a sustainable food system that contributes to the revitalization of the O'odham himdag - the Desert People's Way.''

Native Seeds/SEARCH has been involved, either as provider or partner, in many restoration projects that provide seeds to individual farmers as well as larger-scale tribal projects. Its 2006 Annual Report indicates ''roughly 5,000 packets of seeds were delivered through our Native American free seed program,'' Dahl said. ''Sometimes the gift returns. We probably supplied seeds at the beginning of many of these efforts, but they're way past that now and self-sufficient. In fact, as part of the tribal compact for gaming, the nation gives a certain percentage of gaming revenue to nonprofits and they've donated $50,000 to our capital campaign for a bigger space to hold seeds that are now stacked floor to ceiling.''

This seed conservation program is considered somewhat unique in a contemporary use-it-and-throw-it-away society. Fingering an ear of dried corn similar that grown by the earliest of desert inhabitants, Dahl said, ''We fill a niche in the arid Southwest. The model we've developed has been successful. If what we're doing is preserving a living heritage, connecting with Native farmers, providing and exchanging seeds, our grass-roots organization is working pretty well to ensure that history is saved for posterity.''