Seed Memory

How saving and cultivating seeds preserves and protects the future of food

Imagine a mythology, passed down through the generations, packed full of life and the very elements of survival. As the ages pass, each generation grows increasingly less enamored with the story, until, finally, its beginning, its end—even its purpose—are a ghost of memory. Now imagine being that last generation, the one that forgets the story about how life exists on this planet.

This is Emily Arasim's worst fear, and the 23-year-old seed saver has made preventing this kind of cultural loss her ambition. Seeds, in their vast diversity, once were sacred, cared for, passed from neighbor to neighbor and cultivated in a ritualistic, community-driven fashion. Families knew secrets about the lands they lived on and what grew best there. They kept banks of regional seeds for each season.

That tradition remained somewhat strong in New Mexico, where old Hispanic families cherish chile seeds and Indigenous cultures honor Mother Earth and use certain types of corn and beans in sacred ceremonies. Growing up in New Mexico, Arasim got to witness this unique preservation of seed diversity firsthand—but she's watching memory fade, too. "I've equally heard stories of mourning and loss and grandpas saying, 'I don't know what's going to happen. No one in my family wants to come do this.There is no one to pass along my knowledge.'"

The forgetting began after the world wars, when large-scale crops supplanted agricultural traditions, as chemicals once used to destroy were repurposed into pesticides and artificial fertilizers. "That's the scary story that's at the end of this: 'We used to dump this [chemical] on people in Vietnam, now let's figure out how to put it on our food,'" Arasim tells SFR.

Large-scale farming is a one-crop proposition, so agricultural techniques developed throughout thousands of years of history were thrown to the wind in less than a century. The forgetting is nearly complete: Researchers say up to 75 percent of the world's seed diversity in food crops is gone.

Arasim wants to be part of a new remembering.

That's why she's apprenticing with a four-person crew that is rebuilding agricultural memory under the guidance of one of the most knowledgeable seed savers alive: Emigdio Ballón, the Bolivian-born farming genius who, in 2005, took over as agricultural resources director for the Pueblo of Tesuque. For 30 years, Ballón has worked closely with seeds and, at Tesuque, he has helped to build the most extensive seed bank in the state.

Walking into the basement of the adobe building off the frontage road that runs along Highway 84/285, where the bank is stored, the weight of memory overwhelms you. To start, the adobe is real—lumpy, full of honey-colored straw peeking through the hand-smoothed surface. The dusty shelves are littered with coffee tins and burlap sacks, bags full of tobacco leaves and chile pods, jars of dalmatian-spotted beans and envelopes of seeds so tiny they look like sand.

It's nearly pitch black and very dry inside, which Ballón says is paramount for seed preservation, but it somehow smells like petrichor and the forest floor. The smell reminds you of playing in the afternoon as a child, of all things natural and dirty.

The bank, though, is more than remembering—more than preservation of that most important myth. Scientists who spoke with SFR agree with the seed savers that the old ways, when people knew their seeds as friends, point the way ahead as well. As climate change spikes temperatures and saps groundwater, particularly in the already arid Southwest, regional, generational seeds—known as landraces—may be the only ones that can survive.

There's an irony, too.

The large-scale chemical agriculture industry that has obliterated seed diversity is also among the leading producers of harmful carbon emissions—around 25 percent of total global emissions.

"This is crazy, because what this really means is that these big farming practices are causing climate change, and at the same time we are losing our seeds and our soils that could keep us alive, especially in the face of these things," says Loretta Sandoval. She is a former analytical chemist who has been a full-time farmer, conservationist and seed saver for 12 years and operates Zulu Petal Farms in Dixon.

'I belong to the seeds'

Arasim grew up on a lush patch of land in Tesuque, where the acequia runs full in the summer. She knows her life story is part of a longer tale. “For pretty much all of human history, our lives have been based around seeds and water; it literally is life. It’s the source of pretty much all the food we eat, every day at every meal,” she says.

The movement toward big farming is noticeable here at home, she says, and so are its consequences.

The traditional way of cultivating crops, to which many in New Mexico still cling, is to grow a bunch of things together. Rather than placing one kind of seed every few inches along a straight row, "we put hundreds of seeds in a foot," Sandoval tells SFR. This is how seeds are selected for strength. "We are always doing something called mass selection. They'll come up, and we look at the ones that come up together and are uniform," she says, "and everything else we pull."

This technique forces the crops to compete with each other, which strengthens the food and the seeds they produce. Sandoval says she learned this all-together planting technique from Spanish traditional farmers. "You have to plant it thick and then you [pull] anything that looks weak. That's really important for seed quality, to select for strong competitive traits."

"But if you're trying to cultivate these massive fields, you can't do that," Arasim says. "It's resulted in choosing single varieties and single seeds. Think of the yellow corn you see everywhere. It was a very, very quick change."

Losing all but 25 percent of that biodiversity is a scary fact. And trying to take on the huge task of reversing, or even slowing that loss, is daunting. Arasim knows this, and the answer, she says, is to look toward home, to lean on heritage. "The scale of the problem is so big, and that's kind of the only thing that can be done."

The 70-acre plot in the Tesuque valley where Ballón presides over a conservation effort is home to a lush assortment of food crops, medicinal herbs and, of course, the seed bank.

"The Dalai Lama said, 'Everyone, they come in with a mission to this earth, and that's why we are,'" Ballón says. "I am a son of the seeds myself. I belong to the seeds. I am not directing the seeds; the seeds are directing me."

The farm's orchard, planted in the traditional way with patches of herbs growing amomg the trees, produced more than 3,000 pounds of apples last year. The four-man team pressed them into cider and apple cider vinegar. The conservation farm sells some of its regional medicinal herbs to Herbs Etc. (1345 Cerrillos Road, 982-1265) and the seed savers make chile and garlic oil. But this operation's true heart and purpose is to save and cultivate seeds.

The Tesuque Pueblo farm uses solar power, generated by panels on site, to run the geothermal greenhouses and some electricity to the main seed bank structure. While Ballón sees the merit behind technology and understands the ways it can help his farming, he is primarily reliant upon the land and the natural elements that provide everything a plant needs. "We have the ability to grow what we want and what we need, but in these times, we are beginning to lose these things," Ballón tells SFR. "We are beginning to forget how we can eat, how healthy we can eat and how healthy we can live."

The farmer-philosopher stresses that the forgetting includes losing touch with the importance of seeds—and agriculture in general. "We have to be very careful how we handle technology. Anywhere you go, you see people are very, very busy with their cell phones. They don't look at each other. They are beginning to block the connection between each other," Ballón says. "You are beginning to misuse your hands when you don't have the ability to dig one hole, or hold one shovel, or hold a pencil."

He says his efforts on the farm and in life are about remembering, which, for both Arasim and Ballón, is inextricably tied to saving seeds. Asked about moving forward or surviving climate change in our future, he produces a picture of the past, or a seed. He talks about how it used to be.

In this adobe seed bank on the Tesuque Pueblo, he palms a photograph of a Hopi man planting a seed in the desert. The man sweats and wears only a deerskin. You can see the heat rising from the sand, and a stick is his only tool for planting this crop in the desert ground, on an arid patch of dune. It's a demonstration that if you have the right seed, you don't need much else.

Therein lies the crux of why seed saving, in New Mexico in particular, is so important. "So much of the world is about to face drought and these crazy hectic weather patterns that we always have here," Arasim says. "We have seeds that have been around for 6,000 years that have been cultivated generation by generation by our Pueblos that can handle these crazy summers we get. And that's going to be increasingly important for the whole world as we face these things."

Genetically Superior

Sandoval, the former chemist, gives scientific testament and weight to the durability and superiority of heritage seeds.

After working in a laboratory and pursuing more education in that field, she changed course and dove into farming. About six months after moving to New Mexico, she met Mary Campbell, a retired Los Alamos scientist who owns certified organic fields. Working with Campbell, Sandoval encountered regional seeds for the first time. They happened to be about 200 years old. Campbell acquired the landraces from an old Hispanic family who owned the farm for generations before she purchased it. They gave her a jar of chile seeds that had grown on the property for centuries. "They said they belonged to the field," she says.

Sandoval, ever the scientist, ran some experiments. "I started ranking the landraces with hybrids, like peppers from Southern New Mexico and other peppers like New Mexico 64 and Anaheims," Sandoval tells SFR. "I started growing them here, and I didn't understand the landrace at all: It was amazing, it would break dormancy and germinate so much faster than anything I had ever seen."

When Sandoval saw how much better that jar of landrace seeds grew, she started researching its secret. The landrace had grown for hundreds of harsh and erratic summers in the same field in Northern New Mexico. Centuries in the elements taught the seed how to survive. Landraces have built memories through years of evolution and selection, so when a sweltering summer comes along, they can handle it. "Last summer, which was the hottest recorded New Mexico summer in history, I went seven weeks without watering my landraces and they were fine," Sandoval states as evidence. "They weren't even wilting, and it was over 100 degrees every day."

This resilience comes from a strong genetic backbone, which creates a response system. Beyond the chile seed Sandoval tested, landrace seeds in general are weather warriors. If they've survived hot summers before, they can do it again.

Think of a seed like a doorway between the past and the future. It holds the potential to grow a plant, and it gets that potential from generations of evolutionary information in the plant it comes from. It is a frozen moment in a cycle.

Hybrid seeds, however, don't come with or pass along evolutionary data.

"They are creating a seed for one generation," says Sandoval. "Landraces have never been raised like that, they have to mine nutrients and they have to have the capacity to work with the fungi in a co-op relationship. That's the memory."

Hybrid and GMO seeds can't produce healthy plants because they aren't a part of the natural informative cycle. They don't have any memories to rely on. So, beyond landrace seeds being integral to surviving climate change, they are the only way to keep the cycle of food production on our planet alive and well.

Seed saving is a partially undocumented and ever-developing science, practiced by people hidden in rural areas throughout the state. There is no database of degree-touting experts. Seed savers are "unknown heroes, citizen scientists. They're storytellers. They are keeping our diversity alive and our cultures alive, and it's totally unrecognized," Arasim says. "The majority of what's happening in our state still is coffee cans hidden under the floorboard of an abuela's house in the middle of nowhere."

A seed's intention

Linking those coffee-can-stashing grandmothers to the younger generation, of which Arasim is a part, is essential to the remembering. There is wisdom and knowledge in the seeds. "It's part of what many here are trying to figure out, to bring together these traditional farming communities in a way that's organized to meet the challenges of these very intense times, and also honoring the way things have been done forever, which is meeting up with your neighbor and trading with your community," Arasim says.

In the spirit of seed connectivity, the Mountain West Seed Summit is coming to Hotel Santa Fe (1501 Paseo de Peralta, 982-1200) March 3 and 4. The two day conference costs $150 for both days or $80 for one, features lectures by some of the foremost seed leaders (including Ballón and Sandoval) as well as seed exchanges and local food provided by Squash Blossom, a company that connects local farmers with restaurants and consumers. Arasim says conferences can help to build a network. Beyond that, she says, "I am trying to learn from these elders and from the Pueblo all that they know and all they've been physically doing for so long, and trying to wrap my head around what we do next to bring that together and to make it accessible to more people."

Another important part of saving seeds is ensuring their cultivation, and Ballón says they need to be grown in different places. Traveling is part of a seed's intention. His dream is to see all the seeds in his seed bank planted in the ground. "I am thinking these guys, they are like humans, they don't want to stay in one place," he says. "My dream would be to have so many seed banks. In the meantime, these seeds from these seed banks go to other places because that's the gift of the great spirits. For what? Not to make money—to feed the people."

Sandoval plays her part in both the connectivity of the seed community and sending seeds out of New Mexico from her stand at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, where she sells landraces and crops from her farm. She's also sent the seeds to a few fellow scientists. "They couldn't believe it," she tells SFR. "It just blew their mind how efficient and fast it was. I wanted to know how well it would do somewhere else, and it's all over the world now because people come to the market."

Arasim envisions a future with more seed savers and more banks. "What's really needed are places in every community where these things are kept safe," she says. "Where community members can go and get seeds if they lose theirs from year to year. You know, a backup."

But there are people like Arasim and Ballón, and farmers who grow regional varieties and sell them at the farmer's market, and abuelos and abuelas who, perhaps, don't know how much they're doing for the world by picking a kernel of native blue corn from an ear and saving it in a can in their kitchen.

"Right now I have about 30 varieties of beans, corn, squash, melon and some medicinal plants from around New Mexico and the Southwest, and that's just my personal saving that I work to grow out on a couple properties of family and friends throughout town," Arasim says. "That's just my small work. I am very much still a student and I am honored to be learning from the amazing resources we have."

Ballón reminds us that the tradition around seeds is knowledge, and it comes with power. He says, "Whoever is controlling the seeds in the culture is going to control the life."

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