April 2017

Heritage Seeds in Community Life


Greg Schoen


Many of us are aware of a renaissance of sorts regarding the preservation of heirloom seeds, also known as “heritage seeds.” Through thousands of years of human civilization there has developed a kaleidoscope of variation in all the kinds of seeds of food crops—grains, beans, vegetables and fruits—along with fiber plants, medicinal plants and colorful flowers. As cultures formed and people migrated around the world, they carried their seeds along with their stories and traditions. The seeds themselves carry memory in their genetic code, as do the people who planted them. In our personal cultural memories, seeds have a special meaning, as we cherish “the ones that Grandfather planted,” or “the ones Grandmother loved so much.”


In our recent history, as agriculture has become more mechanized, and as far fewer of us are engaged in the farming life, the types of seeds grown to produce food have become specialized, and as a result the majority of traditional varieties have been lost—that means, rendered extinct, as they are no longer being planted.  


Increasingly, genetically engineered (GMO) crops have become the bulk of our corn, soybeans and many other crops, replacing those varieties created by traditional and conventional plant breeding. These alterations have entered the world’s food supply.


Fortunately, there is a movement of intrepid and enthusiastic souls all over the world working to rescue the heritage seeds that remain, grow them in protected places and bring them back into culture and life. The support for this passion for the seeds was evident at the Mountain West Seed Summit, produced by the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, a relatively young organization made up of longtime seed stewards from throughout the western states. The summit was held at Hotel Santa Fe March 2-4. Speakers and participants were present from the entire region, and northern New Mexico was strongly represented. The collective spirit of all of us joining together at this summit was palpable, and it was clear to all that we are ready, willing and able to meet the challenges of our time.  


The seed movement is well seasoned in northern New Mexico, and seed conferences have been held for several years. The New Mexico Acequia Association, Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance and the Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA), as well as the Tesuque Pueblo Agricultural Initiative, have been at the core of this activism. In 2006, TNAFA and the Acequia Association drafted the Declaration of Seed Sovereignty, which has become a model inspiring similar declarations elsewhere.  


Two Examples in New Mexico—near Silver City and Estancia

At the Southwest Sufi Community (SSC), a small intentional community northwest of Silver City, we are doing our part to grow many heritage seed varieties, including corn, beans, grains and herbs. The corn has included the colorful “glass gem” type and other indigenous corns such as Hopi and Pueblo corns.   Colorful beans, including the mysterious “Beauty Way” or “Fremont” runner beans, are grown. We are fortunate to have the waters of Bear Creek, with water rights, for our irrigation.   


The SSC also works in cooperation with Grandmother Flordemayo’s “The Path” Seed Temple project on 40 acres near Estancia, which hosts a seed bank for safekeeping of heritage seeds and sharing with local communities. The Path holds gatherings related to seeds and spirituality and helps increase awareness of the importance of keeping heritage seeds alive.


None of the seeds from the Sufi Community or The Path project are sold but rather are shared openly with people interested in being seed stewards. Volunteers have come forward to grow-out (increase) seeds that are acquired and may be rare or in limited amount, helping to maintain a stock of healthy seeds. Those varieties that perform particularly well and produce a good harvest then become “community service varieties” that can be donated to “seed libraries” and to folks who just want to get started. 


Why not sell seeds? Because seeds may offer a greater opportunity. On a grassroots level, why interpose a “storefront” between you, me and the seeds? Although seed businesses are an effective way to get seed out there and maintain standards of quality—at a deeper level the seed itself is the currency. In sharing and exchanging seeds there is a passing around of the life and culture of community. Seeds themselves carry their own ancestry, their own story. We who plant them also have our history, and that is interwoven with the seeds we carry. Seed-sharing in community builds relationships, which are the true wealth. Experienced seed stewards can apply the same techniques as the professionals to produce high-quality seed. Seed-saving and stewardship in community can act as training or practice for embodying the principles of a barter-based way of life that may become more necessary in coming times.


Seed-growing offers a direct communion with nature, its cycles and the elements. Young children especially benefit from growing gardens and seeds. Much like the “first milk” provides a newborn baby with immunities it needs, an early connection to nature provides an imprint that can help children to later find their way in a world awash in technology and digital distractions.   


For me as an adult, working with the seeds has helped to reinforce and nurture the basic qualities of spirituality in a similar way that many of us strengthen our paths with music, art and meditation. If someone asks, “Is seed-saving a spiritual path?” I just say that it can truly support whichever spiritual path you are living.


Heritage seed-keeping and the seed sovereignty movement is likely going strong in your local community in some form. Farmers’ markets and garden clubs can let you know of seed stewards/seed savers in your area, and about seed exchanges taking place. Your local public library may also host a seed library where you can “check out” seeds to grow and increase, and then give back a portion of your harvest to the library to perpetuate it for others. Getting involved with heritage seeds can lead you into a world of beauty and wonder that serves Nature and our fellow human beings. Happy Planting!


Greg Schoen has been a seed steward since the 1990s. He originally worked with Carl Barnes of Oklahoma, known for “glass gem” corn. Schoen resides at the Southwest Sufi Community near Silver City and is a seed-keeper with Grandmother Flordemayo and “The Path” Seed Temple in Estancia, N.M. He actively shares with other seed stewards in Colorado, Arizona and northern New Mexico.





Here’s how to connect


Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, https://rockymountainseeds.org

New Mexico Acequia Association, www.lasacequias.org/food-and-agriculture/seed-alliance/

Traditional Native American Farmers Association (TNAFA), www.tnafa.org     

The Path  (Flordemayo in Estancia, N.M.), followthegoldenpath.org  

Native Seeds/SEARCH  (Tucson, Ariz.), www.nativeseeds.org

Seed Broadcast (in N.M.), www.seedbroadcast.org

Seed Savers Exchange (Decatur, Iowa), www.seedsavers.org



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