Sarah Montgomery holds an ear of corn in each hand.
"These look like two ears of white corn to most people," she says. "But they're totally different."
Montgomery is the founder and director of The Garden’s Edge, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture within the state and in Guatemala. A central piece of that puzzle is preserving an ancient farming technique that's endangered: seed saving.
The corn in her left hand is Hopi, she explains, a dry land variety from New Mexico. "Farmers plant it far underground to get the moisture, and the seed is adapted to getting rained on only a few times a year." The other ear is Guatemalan. It's the Hopi corn's opposite, she explains, which is eager to soak up tropical rains and moisture. "Each one is adapted to its particular bioregion."
By saving seeds from crops acclimated to a variety of environmental conditions, growers maintain biodiversity—something that dissappears when seeds are standardized for commercial use. Preserving multiple varieties of the same crop is one of the oldest safeguards against disasters like drought and disease. "It's like with the potato famine in Ireland," Montgomery says. "If you plant one monoculture and it gets a disease, then the whole crop is vulnerable. When you plant only one variety and the others disappear, then you are losing the ability to save people [from a food shortage crisis]."
On its face, seed saving seems like a no-brainer. Farmers and hobbyist growers simply retain the seeds from their crops to plant in seasons to come. Yet it's no longer common practice, even among small growers. “Farming is so hard, and you’re so tired, and you’re barely making money,” says Montgomery. “It’s just so much easier to open up a seed catalog and just order it.”
“It’s survival. It’s self-sufficiency.”
Isaura Andaluz, executive director of agricultural nonprofit Cuatro Puertas
Turns out seed saving is technique-sensitive, hinging on planning and specialized knowledge that a grower primarily focused on selling produce may not have. “It starts at the beginning of the season,” Montgomery says, when a farmer should be “thinking about saving seeds from the moment they are put into the ground.” Instead of harvesting the edible parts of the plant at maturity, some crops—onions, for example—need to grow through a full season. Others are sensitive to cross-pollination, so the plants’ distance from other varieties is vital. Then there’s preparing the seeds for storage. “You have to know how to cut it, how to dry it, how to process it," she says, and the techniques for each step vary by crop.
Cuatro Puertas is doing its best to fill in those gaps for growers. The Albuquerque-based nonprofit provides small-scale farmers with technical and informational support. It also maintains the Arid Crop Seed Cache, the state's largest seed library of native, heirloom and forgotten crops. The organization's executive director, Isaura Andaluz, is quick to point out that, despite the extra labor and knowledge required, seed saving is vital to the long-term sustainability of small-scale farming. “It’s survival. It’s self-sufficiency,” Andaluz explains. “If you can save your seeds, you can feed yourself. If you can’t, then you’re going to depend on someone else."
There are cultural benefits as well, "especially for the Pueblos in New Mexico," Andaluz says. "When, for instance, you have someone pass away, you need certain cornmeal of different colors for the prayers." If the corn is lost, then an important aspect of the ceremony disappears with it.
For Montgomery and Andaluz, this kind of connection is what seed saving is all about. Whether it's crops in New Mexico helping farmers in Central America or simply an heirloom tomato that reminds a gardener of her grandmother, the food we grow binds our world. When we allow strains of crops to disappear, we all become poorer for it.0
Interested in saving seeds from your own garden? Be forewarned, it’s not as easy as you might think. But never fear, the gardening gurus at the Alibi are here with some quick tips to help you get started.
1) Know the seeds you’re starting with. Before you think about saving samples of your delicious sweet corn for next year, there’s one thing you need to be sure of, especially if you bought your seeds at the store: Is your crop a hybrid variety? If it is, don’t even bother. Hybrid crops will grow out beautifully from the package you bought, but if you try to save the second-generation seeds produced by your plants and use them later, there’s no telling what you’ll wind up with. The seeds could be sterile, or they might result in horrible mutants with no resemblance to their parent. So check your source. If the seed pack you bought says “open pollinated,” you’re good to go. If it’s labeled “hybrid” or “F1,” stop right there. Try a different crop or sit out the seed saving experiment this season. You can always purchase seeds for next year with an eye toward picking up pure varieties.
2) Know your crop. Saving corn kernels is a whole different process than carrot seeds, so make sure you’ve done your research and know how to deal with your specific plants. Some crops have a significant learning curve that’s probably best avoided by a beginner. The International Seed Saving Institute recommends that amateurs stick with beans, lettuce, peas, peppers and tomatoes their first season out and hold off on the corn, cabbages and carrots until they’ve gotten a bit of experience under their belts.
3) Watch out for cross-pollination. Remember what we said about the horrible mutants that could come from second-generation hybrid seeds? That can still happen even if you start from a pure seed and allow the plant to be cross-pollinated with a different variety in your own (or a neighbor’s) yard. Avoid a garden of grotesques by making sure there aren’t other varieties of your crop-of-choice anywhere in the immediate area. This may require talking to your neighbors, or at least peeking over their fences.
4) Save seeds from as many individual plants as possible. This ensures that next year’s planting has a good amount of genetic diversity, a necessity if you want an adaptable crop that can withstand anything Mother Nature throws its way.
5) Clean your seeds! Seriously, they’re disgusting. Knock off any stray plant matter, pulp or other filth that may be clinging to your little darlings. Remove any unwanted material by hand.
6) Dry your seeds. Let them sit in a spot with good air circulation and low sunlight, perhaps on pillow cases or sheets, until they are completely dry. Don’t put your seeds on newspapers (the dyes can damage them), and don’t try to take a shortcut by putting them in the oven (that’s called cooking, not drying).
7) Store your precious seeds in a cool, dry place. 45 to 55 degrees is optimal, and make sure they stay out of the sun. Glass jars with lids are ideal for the job. Avoid plastic containers, as they could allow moisture to build up and spoil all your hard work.
8) Do a little research. These tips are a head start on the basics of seed saving, but if you’re serious about doing this, you’re going to need more help. Native Seed Search, a clearinghouse for Southwestern seeds, has a great beginner’s page at nativeseeds.org, and the International Seed Saving Institute offers a more in-depth guide at seedsave.org.
Cuatro Puertas partners with The Garden's Edge in educating growers about the benefits of seed saving. The two groups hold workshops throughout the state, and you can often spot them at Albuquerque area growers' markets offering free tastes of heirloom crops unique to New Mexico.
The Garden's Edge is also seeing to it that the benefits of seed saving extend beyond the borders of our state. In late May, tropical storm Agatha slammed into Guatemala, causing massive destruction. The villages of Chichicastenango in the El Quiché province, where The Garden’s Edge does much of its Guatemalan work, were hit especially hard.
In order to help these rural communities rebuild, The Garden’s Edge will collect donations at participating booths (look for vendors with a “Seeds for Hope” sign) at Albuquerque growers' markets over the next few weeks. In exchange for a donation, The Garden’s Edge is giving out a 2011 Guatemalan calendar, a packet of native New Mexican seeds and a card explaining the history of the plants. “The idea is that by buying and planting native seeds, you can help preserve these New Mexican varieties," says Montgomery, "while at the same time helping sustainable agriculture in Guatemala.”
For information on upcoming workshops, seed saving, permaculture and Seeds for Hope, visit the groups’ websites.
Garden’s Edge: gardensedge.org
Cuatro Puertas: c4puertas.org