Sunday, March 27, 2016

3rd Annual Taos Seed Exchange

Sharing Santa Fe Red Sorghum

The 3rd Annual Taos Seed Exchange took place on an unusually normal spring day with frosty air settling across the Taos Plateau and a frozen drizzle coming down from the mountains. I refer to it as unusually normal because so far this year the weather has been predictably extreme and climactically normal with swinging night-time temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s to sudden drops into the 0’s and 20’s. It has also been very dry.

During my drive northward from Anton Chico, I followed the Rio Grande up through Espanola, Ohkay Owingeh, Alcalde, Velarde and Embudo and saw the early flowering orchards. The warmer-than-usual spring temperatures had encouraged early blooming and now the sudden drop to critical degrees could easily kill the flowers. But farmers along the valley were trying to save their crops with fires to build up radiant heat and keep the orchards warmer. In Taos, the flowers had not yet bloomed, so everyone I met enroute had fingers crossed that this year’s fruit will still bear.

These environmental pressures pose unavoidable challenges to farmers and gardeners trying their best to grow food, save seed, make a living, and feed community. It all seems an impossible task. So, why would anyone in their right mind want to do something so risky, labor intensive, and unloved by popular culture and the status quo? Is it because of the basic need for food, i.e. someone has to do it? Or is it because these keepers of life, love the land, love plants, animals, work, sweat, toil, creativity, growth, decay, and rebirth? Or is it because they love to care for others? During the entire day of the seed exchange, I was constantly reminded of the role these seeds and seed stewards play in caring for all of us. Filled with generosity and guiding principals that are taught through sharing from the land, from the seeds, and from the bees. We honor all of you.

The seed exchange was organized by the Nan Fischer of Sweetly Seeds in partnership with Taos County Extension, and community volunteers. It was hosted at the Juan I. Gonzales County Agricultural Center in Ranchos de Taos. But, it is not the only seed exchange in town. It is actually a companion event, which grew out of the Taos Seed Exchange stations, that are set up around Taos County at progressive, non-gardening businesses where seeds are freely exchanged. These stations act as year-round seed swap sites where seed savers can share their seeds and also select seeds to take home. Here is an information sheet, which Nan put together to help others organize their own:

Here is Nan's Seed Story about the Taos Seed Exchange and her motivations for creating this community resource.

This one-day seed swap was a tremendous success. It started at 10am and lasted through 130pm. There was no formal schedule, rather it was more akin to what Nan called a “yard sale” where people would come and go all day long. This allowed for more people to attend since they could schedule a seed stop within their busy day of errands. I did not make an official count, but it seemed that well near a hundred people swung by to either pick-up or drop-off seeds. Tables were organized based on genus and common types like legumes, grains, cucurbits, flowers, herbs, and alliums, so it was easy to locate each plant type.

The tables were packed with tupperware, ziplocks, and recycled jars filled with local seeds, and commercial seed packs that had been either donated from seed companies or were leftovers from gardeners. The Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde also had many seeds available. Most of the seeds were open-pollinated, but there were also hybrid varieties available.

As I watched people “foraging” for seeds, it seemed that people were more attracted to the packaged commercial seed. I did not ask anyone why, but I found it very curious indeed. Was it because the packages had that “Garden Porn” aesthetic that Ken Greene talks about in his article Glossy Garden Porn Was it because they could see what the end result was supposed to look like? Or was it simply because the package had directions and gave them the instructional means to grow….or again, maybe it was simply about what was available? This is definitely something to wonder about. But as the day went on, we noticed that people would leave the event and then come back with bags and bundles of local saved seed! By the middle of the day the local seeds were definitely out numbering the commercial packages. And most seed hoarders were going for the local seed!

There were also several educational opportunities presented by local volunteers including a seeding demonstration by Kristen Davenport of Boxcar Farms, general and comedic gardening advise from local farmer and Master Gardener, Ron Monsour, and also beekeeping information from Aaron Mangum of the newly formed Northern New Mexico Bees, a soon to be non-profit supporting our much needed bee community. NMSU/Taos County Extension Service also had extensive how-to’s about New Mexico agriculture and gardening.

Kristen Davenport with Boxcar Farms demonstrating seed starts

Finally, we had the enormous pleasure of meeting so many of the local seeds and their advocates. Seed keepers came from all over the Taos area, from the mountains, the valleys, and even from Southern Colorado to share their seeds and meet more. Several seeds came our way through locals who wanted to share with SeedBroadcast. These included a tall Taos Marigold, a true English Marigold, Bloody Butcher Dent Corn, Four Corners Beans, and Santa Fe Red Sorghum. We are happy to share these with other communities as the Mobile Seed Story Broadcasting Station travels across New Mexico.

Strawberry Popcorn, very dark almost black

Regardless of the cold blast that had settled in, everyone was in good cheer and thinking about the upcoming planting season. Someone said, “Oh well, there goes another season of fruit, its so New Mexico.” Like most farmers and gardeners who are not obsessed with bending the will of the world around their pinky, everyone we met at the Taos Seed Exchange was excited to be students of the seeds, plants, bees, and even the extreme weather. Many felt that growing in the Taos area made them better at it because the challenges are so great. So, with some failures and some successes each grower continues to learn, experiment, and work with these difficult growing conditions developing healthy food sources, strong seeds, and a resilient sense of agency.

One young farmer, Jeffery, told us his story of how he ended up in Taos and how he became a landless farmer. Most people might not see this as an asset, but for a large majority of people wanting to farm, the crisis of no land and no capital assumes that their dreams are bust. So, how does one farm or even garden in the smallest way without access to land?

Upon arrival in the Taos area, Jeffrey got to know local farming leaders such as Miguel Santistevan ( and he felt incredibly inspired to become a local farmer as well. He immediately became smitten with the land, local culture, and working with seeds and plants. So, he began doing landscaping work. This got him in touch with people who have land but don’t know what to do with it. A perfect solution! Through his network of landscaping jobs he met many people, established working, trusting relationships, and was given land to begin farming. He now farms collectively with a group all over the region, growing food, seed, and a community of young farmers.

Jeffrey also shared a story about the Taos Red Bean, which had been almost extinct 10 years ago. A farmer in the area had come across a stash and grew these out. After the harvest Jeffrey found 15 seeds on the ground and decided to grow some out as well. This sharing continued to grow year after year. And now 10 years later these beans are back and produced all throughout the Taos area as a prolific variety and a local tradition.

Dried Marigold flower, inside are the seeds!
Sharing seeds and stories from the mountains at Black Lake

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