Back home in Albuquerque after a whirlwind weekend, I’m surrounded by souvenirs from my time in Tucson at Native Seeds/SEARCH: a hollow gourd whose neck we snapped open to extract its rattling seeds and fluffy chaff, a tiny ear of glimmering silver corn, several packets of dried seed that we scooped wet from squash whose flesh we then roasted for lunch on Sunday. Connections made and conversations shared with some seventeen classmates from California to Oklahoma, the Navajo Nation to Zuni Pueblo. A plethora of photos—see below. My notebook of scribbled information on plant biology, and a folder full of class materials.
Among those materials is a 70-page booklet called “Saving Seeds in the Southwest: Techniques for Seed Stewardship in Aridlands,” co-authored by our course instructor, Melissa Kruse-Peeples—yes, that Melissa Kruse-Peeples! (Who knew two months ago that I’d end up taking a course from her.) Its introduction eloquently captures the foundation for all we learned in our fourteen hours together, so I’m happy to pass it on to you directly:
Why Save Seeds?
Seed saving is crucial for food security and cultural preservation. As 21st-century farmers and gardeners with easy access to low-cost commercial seeds, we may ask why it is still worthwhile to preserve older varieties, or to take the time and effort to save seeds for our own use. In fact, the time-honored practice of seed saving is more relevant and useful today than ever. At the same time that global food production is higher than ever before in human history, people have less and less access to the diversity of amazing flavors and nutrition present in heirloom crops. A healthy, resilient local seed system is one that provides growers and consumers with crop plants that are adapted to local soils and climates, support sustainable growing practices, are culturally relevant, and serve the economic well-being of smaller farmers and communities rather than industrial agribusiness.
Seed banks like Native Seeds/SEARCH are important, but they are only one part of the solution. People who save their own seeds not only contribute to conserving valuable genetics and cultural heritage, but on-farm growing allows varieties to continue to evolve to specific local conditions and provide a dynamic genetic basis for future crop needs. It is only when a variety is grown, eaten and shared with others, that it is truly alive.
Seed saving is powerful. The rich crop diversity we enjoy today is the culmination of thousands of years of partnership between our human ancestors and their natural environment. Through the simple act of saving seeds, ancient peoples succeeded in one of the greatest bioengineering feats in human history: domesticating wild crop species. This boosted crop yields, made them easier to harvest, and adapted them to farms, providing the foundation of the emergence of civilization.
This process continues today on farms and in gardens throughout the world, creating new and valuable diversity. Seeds are living time capsules that record thousands of years of travel throughout diverse and changing lands, seasons and cultures. Every trait of value to us, no matter how small, is still present with us because someone, even just one person, loved it enough to save seed. And so by saving seeds, we honor the stories of those who stewarded them before us, and we weave ourselves back into the cloth of human history.