Native harvest: Groups stress importance of seed-saving

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    Native harvest: Groups stress importance of seed-saving
    Kathy Pinto | For The New Mexican
    Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 –

    In January 2007, the New Mexico Food & Seed Sovereignty Declaration — drafted by the Traditional Native American Farmers Association and the New Mexico Acequia Association — was passed, approved and adopted as resolution by the New Mexico State Legislature.

    This valuable resolution underscores the importance of farming systems and native seeds to New Mexico’s food security. Because of concern over genetic engineering and protection of indigenous seeds from bio-engineering profiteers, it renounces corporate ownership claims to seeds and crops.

    Throughout history, humans have been selecting the strongest, most desirable plants and saving their seeds for propagation for future generations. Saved seeds were traded among neighbors and communities, thus preserving genetic diversity. But as elders passed away, these heirloom varieties were being lost.

    Today, the urgency for gardeners and farmers is to save and preserve seeds from potential contamination of local genetic pools by GMOs (genetically modified organisms) carried in wind and insect-borne pollen. As small seed companies are absorbed by the corporate seed industry, the tradition of specialty varieties declines and heirloom crops are lost in a mire of corporate hybrids.

    Returning to tradition

    At the Indian pueblos, a revival has been under way to recover many of their native seeds and crops. The goal of Tesuque Pueblo’s Agricultural Initiative — started in 2007 by tribal member and seed sovereignty advocate Louis Hena — was to re-establish its Native agricultural traditions and grow enough nutritional, diverse and organic food to feed its members.

    Under the guidance of Ag Resources Director Emigdio Ballon, the pueblo grows a wide array of crops adaptable to arid lands: fruits, berries, vegetables, medicinal herbs and important traditional native foods such as corn, beans, squash and chile. The pueblo also raises livestock for nutritional needs: goats for milk and cheese, chickens for meat and eggs.

    An indigenous Quechua agronomist from Cochabamba, Bolivia, Ballon stresses the importance of seed-saving and the revival of traditional crops both nutritional and medicinal. Through his Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute — a collective effort of farmers, educators, healers and spiritual leaders — Ballon helps native communities by utilizing traditional Quechua techniques and rituals.

    The Southwest Bridge Project focuses mainly on the pueblos surrounding Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Española. The South American Bridge Project assists Quechua and Aymara communities in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia to survive and thrive in their remote Andes locations.

    “Indian people were already using the (so-called) new-age techniques of dry farming and bio-dynamics,” Ballon said. “But we forgot them because society demanded profit.” Ballen’s ancestors successfully grew quinoa for over 1,000 years — on dry land.

    Ballon, an accomplished plant geneticist, warns against the dangers of genetic engineering. This, he says, not only keeps farmers dependent on big corporations for seed stock, but also results in sub-par food quality that doesn’t provide much nutrition. Many farmers have been threatened into buying what he terms “terminator seeds” that can’t be replanted after being harvested. Because farmers can’t afford to repurchase seeds year after year, he says, “they are faced with financial ruin.”

    From seed to seed

    Seeds of Change, an organic food and seed company based in Santa Fe, specializes in organic and heirloom varieties and is one of very few seed companies selling only 100 percent organic seeds to gardeners and commercial growers.

    The company develops its line of seeds at its research farm located in El Guique on six acres of land originally cultivated by the Tewa people.

    “We use the farm to trial new products,” says Marc Cool, the company director. “We scour gardens, seed banks and other sources for planting on the farm,” he said. “If they perform well, we commercialize them and put them in our catalog.”

    Because Seeds of Change Farm produces its seeds through a network of contracted organic seed growers across the U.S., they are able to concentrate on seed research. More importantly, they create new varieties through traditional plant breeding techniques, bringing out unique and improved characteristics and combining desirable traits from existing varieties.

    With prices of fresh produce — often of dubious quality and freshness — at an all-time high, there has been an increasing interest in gardening and growing your own. Saving seeds from a food garden can become an extended hobby for avid gardeners and is a good way to get out of the garden and mingle with other growers at the many festive seed-exchange events in Northern New Mexico.

    At the Seeds of Change research farm, field-day gatherings provide an invaluable opportunity for lively discussion and important feedback from local growers and chefs. Participants have the chance to see first hand how their organic varieties perform “in the field,” and visitors often take part in tastings.

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