Residents of a sparsely populated region in New Mexico and Arizona find a common denominator in food and the desire to preserve local seeds.
The remote corner of the southwest that I call home straddles a beautiful swath of the Arizona-New Mexico border. There are two small nearby towns – Portal, Arizona, and Rodeo, New Mexico – each with fewer than than 300 people. The nearest grocery store is about an hour away, we have no cell coverage, and most of us live on dirt roads.
The people who live here have come for a variety of reasons and span a wide spectrum of backgrounds and worldviews. There are ranchers and scholars, writers and astronomers, craftspeople and artists, affluent and poor, retirees and youth, natives and transplants. Some have come to immerse themselves in the rugged beauty and rich biodiversity here. Others are here to escape urban sprawl. Still others have come to establish independence and self-sufficiency.
Despite these varying outlooks on life, there are things that bring us together. One of them is food. We all enjoy food and also know that our food choices are important and make a difference – to ourselves, to our community and to the larger world. As rural residents, we also have food challenges. Supermarkets are far away; food can be expensive; healthy, sustainable food is not as readily accessible as it is in urban centers. There are concerns about being cut off from the commercial food supply, and many wish for a way to become more self-reliant as a community.
About two years ago, these issues were discussed by some in the community, and the idea of starting a local seed library was raised. The hope was that establishing a seed library would guarantee a supply of local seeds that would be viable and free to all. We also wanted to preserve heirloom varieties and to fight against GMO seeds, both of which are challenges in the era of increasing corporate control of seeds, as well as the whole food chain.
What has happened since exceeded all of our expectations. Not only did we achieve those goals, but we helped renew interest in small-scale growing and food production, created a learning community, and built new relationships around our shared interests in food.
The first steps we took were to find a location for our seed library and to survey the community about how they wanted it to operate. We are fortunate to have a thriving local library in Portal, and our treasured librarian jumped at the chance to host the seed library. Our actual seeds are stored there, in a cabinet donated by one of our members, and we also have most of our meetings at the library.
“We love having the seed library here,” says librarian Kathleen Talbot. “It’s a great service to the community.”
The founding group for this project decided that we wanted as few barriers as possible to sharing seeds across the community. There are no formal membership requirements and no charge. People are encouraged to “borrow” seeds even if they cannot immediately donate or return any. This strategy has worked out very well, and we have accumulated a large number of seeds of different varieties in a short period of time.
As one member, Maurine Joens, points out, having this store of seeds “is like a seed insurance policy.” She says that because “others, as well as the seed library itself, have my seeds, they could share back with me in the event that I were to lose mine.”
At our very first meeting, member David Schurian expressed an interest in educational workshops about various aspects of seed saving, as well as growing methods.
While this was beyond the scope of what we had originally imagined, it has been one of our biggest successes. We have had presentations from experts and community members on topics such as seed saving, fruit trees, different varieties of seeds, irrigation, native species, soil testing and more.
“Free seeds are great, but what knowledge can be shared and acquired at the meetings is doubly great. And a fun time with good people to boot!” says Schurian, capturing the convivial spirit of the meetings.
We have also formed a true peer learning community where we all share what we know about growing. We have traded stories, shared seeds, exchanged plant starts, visited each other’s gardens, eaten together, collected resources and learned more at every step along the way.
“I enjoy learning new information about gardening, from coping with harsh growing conditions to learning trivia about aphids or the origins of a rare popcorn,” says seed library member Craig McEwan. “And I like watching new growers grasp an idea and make it their own and improve on it.”
Our meetings reinforce our commitment to establishing a healthy, local food supply, and they motivate us to persevere even when our efforts are not completely successful. While growing food in the desert is not always an easy task, it is a gratifying one. It is true that farming is an act of faith. Our shared experiences have built faith not only in ourselves, but in our community.
There is perhaps nothing more essential to our well-being than our food. Building local food systems, increasing sustainability, and taking control of our seeds and food supplies are all worthy, though sometimes daunting goals. Starting a small garden, getting to know your neighbors, and participating in a seed library are small steps we can take to make our communities, and maybe even the world, a better place.