Farming in the Desert

By: Anahi Mena-Hernandez, La Semilla Food Center Service Member

I once believed that the biggest challenge about farming in the Chihuahuan desert had more to do with the difficulty of growing food in such an extreme climate. My greatest trial of working in this part of the desert has not been the climate nor the insects, but it had been coming to the realization that most people take for granted the fact that food in some way or another will make it’s way to their table. 

Most people in the Paso Del Norte region think that living in the desert is only temporary, they think that when they “grow up” they will go to college and will buy a house and a car, but it is difficult if not almost impossible to find a single child who I have heard saying “when I grow up I want to be a farmer”. It is frightening to think who will be in charge of our food system, if so few people are willing to get their hands dirty and spend more than 8 hours in the sun. And who will care for this world where everyone eats but just a few get their hands dirty.

I know it’s not their fault. We are programmed to think that progress means leaving home to seek “better” opportunities. I feel that the farming profession has been devalued over the years. I feel it’s in my hands and in hands of those who make a living out of working the land, to make children proud about taking fresh harvest food to their family.

It feels good to wake up everyday knowing that at least one person can change their perspective on how to make a difference in their community. 

Anahi hails from the Paso Del Norte region (Border of New Mexico and Texas) and is serving with La Semilla Food Center in Anthony, NM. Anahi’s leadership and commitment is “I really hope to make an impact in the kids lives so they can educate themselves and also educate their families because we can always learn something new, I want them to take what I know so far when they go home and sit with their families at dinner time and not only talk about it but also maybe change the way their plate are going to look the next day.”

Promoting Food Sovereignty Through Seed Saving

by Josh Jasso, La Semilla Food Center Service Member 

 

My interest in seed saving is relatively new compared to my interest in growing food – which really seems counter-intuitive. How can you grow food without seed? Why haven’t I been interested or been practicing seed saving and seed conservation throughout my years of growing food? Maybe it’s reflective of my previously transient lifestyle – growing for a season here, working on a farm for a season there, but never spending the required time in a place to appreciate the adaptiveness of a crop to an area. Now, as I find myself doing work that I feel matters and settling down in an area that requires a certain hardiness or adaptiveness of plants to grow well, I am realizing the importance of saving seed to promote the health and adaptability of our food in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Native Seed/SEARCH, a nonprofit seed conservation organization, bi-annually holds an introductory course to seed saving at their conservation center in Tucson, Arizona. The course covers seed saving traditions and the modern seed industry, botany, flowering & pollination, seed biology & germination, basic genetics, planning your garden for quality seed production, wet and dry seed processing methods, and simple seed storage methods.  I was able to attend this workshop as well as an additional, day-long workshop focusing on a more in depth look at creating and maintaining a seed library or seed bank.

The workshop was introductory and drew a diverse crowd of gardeners, educators, nonprofit workers, community workers/organizers, and environmentalists with varying degrees of experience. For some, the lecture based sections of the workshop covering sexual reproduction of plants, pollination, parts of a seed, genus types, and genetics, may have just been a review, but the hands-on portions that involved the wet and dry processing of seed was clearly exciting to all. To create a space in which 20 to 30 adults are all enthused and engaged in the simple and the sometimes tedious actions of threshing and removing the chaff from the seed is no easy task, and the education team at Native Seed/SEARCH can be proud of that. It was in these actions that I learned the most – experiencing the equipment, the varying ways of threshing for different seeds, learning what is most comfortable and practical, and realizing the scale at which I can implement these practices in my work with La Semilla Food Center.

The work La Semilla is doing at the schools in El Paso del Norte region is expanding to incorporate more and more schools; as our program grows it makes sense to me to begin to utilize the accumulating garden space and teacher/student work power to add more dimensions to our program. Next year we will have functional gardens at 20 or so schools. While we already discuss and promote local, regional or culturally relevant foods and the “seed to table” cycle in our curriculum, the idea of saving seeds that are adapted to our environment and make sense ecologically and culturally can only reinforce these notions to the students. I plan on using what I learned at the workshop to introduce seed saving, and eventually a functional seed library, to the schools in La Semilla’s Edible Education program. I want the schools to eat and take pride in what they grow, and eventually share seeds from the crops that do well in their gardens with the other schools – creating both a sense of pride and of community.

Seed saving can be a tricky prospect, especially for some crops, but with a bit of experimenting and practice, I think that this is a project that the schools could take on and get interested in. Especially as schools begin to transition out of our program and become more self-sustaining. Gone would be the need to seek out and pay for an outside source of seeds; gone would be the guesswork that comes with a new variety of seeds and their adaptability to our region. Gone would be the conglomerate seed industry with chiles and melons from Oregon and Vermont, and in their place will be a school and community powered seed library with access to desert adapted, local seeds.