One of the greatest achievements of humankind is the domestication of crops over thousands of years. Our crops of today came from wild plants of different families, domesticated by cultures around the globe for a multitude of uses. Over time, cultures came to be characterized by—among other things—foods from the crops they developed that were specialized to particular agricultural practices and environments. These specialized crops withstood countless generations of good and bad years and came to have genetic traits that allowed survival through a myriad of agricultural problems. Termed “landraces,” these crops can be considered humankind’s foundational half in a mutual relationship that joined the plant and animal kingdoms in a collective evolution. Most aspects of human cultures developed through this union, and the plants proliferated to many corners of the globe.
In many parts of the world, landraces are still maintained in the ways and places of their origin. These practices are in the decline, however, as many people who once had connections to agriculture are shifting livelihoods and leaving their homelands in search of opportunity or safety. In the modern world, most people have no connection to the source of the food and nourishment that sustains them beyond a monetary exchange. As the population grows, increases in efficiency and food supply are sought by agricultural corporations that have consolidated almost every aspect of production. While it is incredible to think of the scale of agricultural production worldwide, it is even more mindboggling to think of the scale of seed production required to support that scale of production.
In the face of these facts, a mindful person will try to develop a more intimate relationship with food and the people who grow it by shopping organic, at local farmers’ markets, or by participation in food co-ops or CSAs. A person who wants to actualize a more direct relationship to food while connecting with nature may turn to gardening. Eventually, an interest can develop in reconnecting with the seeds, which are a necessary part of the gardening process. This is how it happened for me more than 20 years ago.
In planting and harvesting my first field of the sacred blue corn of the Río Grande region, I became captivated by the infinite possibilities of the color blue. My taste and need for green chile also motivated my interest and search for a relationship with this foundational crop of bioregional culinary significance. The search for maize-based foods of my youth, like chicos, chaquegüe, posole and tamales also drove my quest.
Over the years I farmed in a variety of contexts and locations in New Mexico, from Albuquerque to Chimayó to Taos. With my growing relationship to seeds and agriculture, I became interested in the identities and stories of all these seeds, the histories of their origins and their experiences in new lands, soils and farming contexts. All of the seeds originated as landraces, but I wondered if planting them in new locations by new farmers affected their identity. And what would it mean to their biology?
Landraces are known by sustained yields or the ability to produce crops in less than optimal conditions. The yields are less abundant than their conventional counterparts, which require a stable range of environmental conditions along with chemical and mechanical inputs. There must be some biological indication that offers perspective into the functioning of landraces over time, such as the amount of yield, the number and mass of seeds produced per plant, and the amount of resources allocated for seed production versus other parts of the plant, such as roots, stems, leaves or flowers.
As I try new varieties, I am intrigued by the growth patterns of plants, their cultural histories and their culinary uses. Many times, these seeds are identified as heirlooms, open-pollinated and/or organic. I became interested in the gradient of experience in a seed that would take it from an open-pollinated, or organic, seed to an heirloom and eventually a landrace. Heirlooms were usually termed as such from seed suppliers that recognized their uniqueness, but what does “heirloom” say about its relationship to the land? And what information does the term hold for its biological proximity to a landrace?
Now that I have farmed the same crops on the same land for the past 13 years, I can reflect on the experience of having both good (incredible) and bad (devastating) years for the production of different crops. Most of my crops come from other areas of the region, from the eastern and western slopes of the northern and central Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the river valleys below. All of these seeds could originally be considered landraces, but I was interested in knowing the effect of planting seed on a new piece of land with new cultivation techniques. How long would it take for the plant to feel “comfortable,” “secure” and “confident” on a new piece of land? Is it even fair to characterize the seed in this way, or are these feelings I need to develop as a farmer? I looked for a means to answer these questions.
I farm a piece of land that is irrigated from a local river through a gravity-fed, earthen-lined acequia system. It has been my only source of irrigation, and I look to every winter with hopes of deep snows to feed the river system as long as possible over the summer. On several occasions, drought has created the experience of diminishing waters that creep toward but never reach our thirsty crops. In these years, the water source is completely dry by July, and I can only hope for intermittent rain and monsoons to carry us through the remainder of the season.
When the acequia goes dry, I employ a variety of techniques to help my crops survive to the next rain. My efforts sometimes result in drastically diminished yields, and other times I’m rewarded with surprisingly abundant yields. Through this experience, I began to feel as if I am a participant in the process of creating a landrace and to wonder about the interplay between genetics, practice and fate in a landrace’s development. As I started to conceptualize these dynamics occurring in my seeds and fields, I was “blessed” with an extreme drought event that gave me the means to test my ideas and measure interest.
One year, I planted a plot of habas, or fava beans, from the village of Vadito. In honor of their origin, I call this introductory generation “Vadito.” The crop was established and almost to flower in early June when irrigation became an impossibility. Rains never came, and the plants slowly shriveled and turned black under the hot July sun. I remembered that sometimes a farmer has to experience loss and submit to nature; it is part of the deal. But as I was clearing the field in the fall, I noticed a few plants had produced seed. In a plot that should have yielded over 30 pounds of beans, I harvested a little over an ounce. The survivors of this drought I called “Taos.”
The next year, a research plot was created to compare the production of my Taos fava bean seeds that survived through the drought to the Vadito parent-generation that had no experience with Taos or the drought. The plot experienced another year of drought, with irrigation again ceasing at the middle of June. The small sample of plants was still able to survive, and 15 plants from each of the two generations yielded interesting results: the Taos generation experienced a 21 percent increase in yield relative to the Vadito generation, with 80 percent of that increase directed toward an increase in seed production. Overall, the Taos generation was able to allocate almost 30 percent of its biomass to seed production, whereas the Vadito generation fell under 20 percent. (See Table 1.)
To further investigate the dynamics of adaptation, a research plot was planted with lentils. Some lentils were obtained from a seed exchange, the owner of which told me they were originally from Lebanon. I called this original seed “Leb” lentils. I planted Leb with sufficient water during a good irrigation year, got good yields and saved seeds from the descendent generation, now called Taos lentils. The following year, I planted some seeds from the original Leb seed stock interspaced with Taos seeds. This was the same drought, with no water available past mid-June, with the crops having to rely on minimal management, genetic tolerance to drought, experience and luck to survive. The crops struggled on, but the lentil plants of the Taos generation were taller, produced flowers and even produced some legumes in the face of drought, where the Leb generation produced no flowers or legumes. Interestingly, as illustrated in the last measurement of the study, six Leb plants persisted until the killing frost without ever producing flowers or seed, whereas the Taos plants had already produced seed or whose flowering process was terminated by lack of water or fortitude. (See Table 2.)
The results of these investigations are preliminary and the sample sizes small, but the implications for resiliency in yields, drought and generation times are interesting nonetheless. I now have greater interest and more questions as I continue the study. The implications point to the importance of having locally adapted varieties of seeds for greatest survival and food-production potential during adverse agricultural production conditions. Adaptation to drought appears to be a trait that can be identified and developed through seed selection using extreme environmental pressure to identify the members of the seed population with exceptional resilience.
I believe that an investment in opportunities to reconnect with seed and agriculture and establish localized, resilient varieties will alleviate some concerns about food security in the face of climate change and a growing population. An investment in our communities and ourselves will be more fruitful in the long term than continuing to allow food corporations to produce the food and ideas that supposedly sustain us. I hope this article serves as food for thought in your journey to reconnect with nature through seed-saving agriculture.
Miguel Santistevan is an educator, researcher and farmer. He maintains a small farm with his wife and family in Taos, New Mexico. More information on him and his non-profit activities can be found at www.growfarmers.org