Planting the Seed

By Josh Hodge, La Semilla Food Center FoodCorps Service Member

When my social studies teaching position ended last may I was clueless at where I would be working next. Needless to say I was depressed. It wasn’t the prospect on a new job hunt that had me down; it was the fact that I wouldn’t see the project the students and I had undertaken to build a productive garden and greenhouse at the school.

Months prior to my termination a student had found photos of my garden on social media, and this had led to them asking me a very simple question: can we do something like this at school? I didn’t know how to respond at first, but I said if we have space and materials I will do my best. I set out on my own to find a site (the school already had one sort of set up, albeit without any beds for the plants), find materials (mostly pallet wood and beds I took apart from my own garden), tools (my own) and seeds (graciously donated by the Cooperative Extension of Bernalillo County). Very quickly I had a good number of students forming the Garden and Agriculture Club, or Farming Party.

Every Wednesday was something I looked forward to more than anything I did during my regular work week. The students I saw in class I didn’t hear a word from, now expressed their excitement for the garden, the projects and would ask questions nonstop. One student expressed desires to learn how to turn their backyard into something that can supplement their family’s groceries. Another wanted to get back into community service through gardening, something they had been very involved in before they had to move hours away to ABQ. And another expressed a desire for a place not made entirely of concrete and grey to get away from the crowded hallways, a place of sights, smells and tranquility to unwind and cool down. I was continually amazed at how each student wanted the space to be something they could put their own touch on, some wanted to spray paint the beds, others wanted to try and sell produce/transplants to other schools.

Once the planting season began and we received our donated soil (thanks Maintenance and Operations!) we planted radishes, swiss chard, beets, turnips, carrots, cilantro, sunchokes etc. Once we filled the boxes we built (12 of them!), I turned to a community farm nearby where I was able to get 2 one hundred foot rows donated for our use. Everything was looking good for the upcoming spring!

This is where I feel I let the students down. I was tasked with working with the other teachers who had been working in the garden prior to us building all the beds and planting the plants. Our club would meet and plants would be pulled, or planted over. The greenhouse would sit in a decrepit state, while money was spent on benches and wine barrels containers. Our proposal for timed irrigation would be shot down on the grounds that it robbed their students of credit worthy work. The community farm may have been 15 minutes away, but between sports and testing students were unable to find time outside of school to work. It sat tilled and fallow. My own workload became too much for me to stay at school for very long and I found myself not getting out taking care of the garden. I was unable to work with others towards a common goal, and I did not understand the students other obligations inside and outside of school and I drove everyone away.

When my time at the school ended the garden was dry and burnt.  I left back to Las Cruces, feeling defeated. Imagining the space the students and I had built being left to rot unused. In my self-loathing I chanced upon someone I knew who saw photos of the school garden, and explained their organization’s work with school gardens. That was how I got my interview with La Semilla, and my service with FoodCorps began. I have since realized the main component that I was missing was allies and like minded people who have dedicated themselves to this service. A month into my service I was sent a photo of some seedlings by a former student, and another who was asking about what they should be planting in the school garden. Seeds sometimes don’t sprout when we expect them to, or we may have forgotten that they were planted. With this I realized that I had found something I want to do with my life as an educator.

Josh lives in southern NM and is serving with La Semilla Food Center in Anthony, NM. Josh is an avid gardener and loves the challenge of growing his own food in the desert. Before FoodCorps, Josh was working as a U.S history teacher in Albuquerque, and there he was able to secure funding for a garden and get a Garden and Agriculture Club started at a school of 2400 students.

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.