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.

Growing Year Around in Southern New Mexico

By Josh Jasso, FoodCorps Service Member with La Semilla Food Center

There are a limited amount of places in the country where year-round food production is viable; and even fewer places where year-round growing is possible at 4000 ft. But that’s the place I find myself at: the Paso del Norte region of Southern New Mexico and West Texas, a tristate area with Chihuahua, Mexico.

Serving with La Semilla Food Center, I’ve been tasked with providing teachers and schools with the knowledge and infrastructure to educate about food and its production, as well as managing two, soon to be productive, school gardens in Las Cruces.

We’re at that point of the year where you (finally) can notice the shift in seasons. As the weather transitions from the consistently hot to crisp and cool, you notice the introduction and shift in vegetables at the farmers market and your garden or farm. You can still find those tomatoes and chiles that you love, but now you’re finding spinach, radishes, carrots and other fall crops as farmers transition to crops that can tolerate our pleasantly mild winters. This selection might be available in other climates for longer or more frequently but let’s not forget that we live in the desert, and it takes a hardy type of plant (or person) to be able to exist here year round.

There are transition windows for the seasons, some are obvious, others are more subtle. There’s a fine line between planting radishes and getting a succulent, watery bite, and getting a sinus-clearing, spicy mouth full.

You want warm enough soil to promote vigorous germination and growth, but cool enough days that the radish remains refreshing. A couple of days on either end of the transition period and your crop can be affected.

Plant too early and your fall crop won’t germinate well in the heat. Plant too late and your crop will get wiped out by a hard frost before you get to harvest any of it.

These are problems that a farmer has to deal with, and can only be learned through familiarity and time.

There are ways to mediate these issues, however. Simple things like using row cover to protect your seeds and seedlings will improve germination and growth and help to regulate soil temperatures. Similarly, the same product will help to extend the growing season by keeping soil temperatures warmer for plants when temperatures begin to drop. The method for season extension that is being implemented at our gardens is the hoop house, or low tunnel.

The principle is the same as using row cover or using a green house – creating a microclimate for the plants in which they can continue to grow. With this method in place we should be able to successfully navigate the changing of the seasons and the light frosts that are prevalent in our area.

Interested in learning about techniques to extend your seasons? Visit the following links for more information: Low Tunnel Construction or Raised Bed Gardening Mini Tunnel.