By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
OXFORD, Ohio — Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House) is a seed bank – a 30-year old self-organized, nonprofit organization that serves, distributes and documents agricultural seeds and their wild relatives, said Bill McDorman, executive director.
“It was formed to save all of these varieties of things that were disappearing because of industrial agriculture,” he said. “As the current director, I am carrying on the tradition of trying to save these seeds. We have over 500 varieties of corn from over 50 Native American tribes in the Southwest.”
The organization also has 500 varieties of beans and more than 500 varieties of squash, he said.
The idea was to find the most important agricultural crops that were adapted to arid lands.
“We have a whole range of things from Devil’s Claw (used by Native American to make baskets) to Panic Grass. Do those things have a place in modern agriculture? No, so they’ve just been forgotten.”
McDorman, at Miami University for a lecture, talked with botany students. They almost all remembered grandparents or great-grandparents who had grown their own food and saved seeds.
“We’re not that far away from that, but this disruption has caused maybe a loss of 90 percent of the diversity of all the different kinds of things we have to grow,” he said. “So in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it became this mission to save what we have left before it disappeared.”
The seeds were originally collected from subsistence and small-scale farmers and gardeners. Seeds, however, are living, breathing embryos, so the organization’s plan was to take everything out every 10 years and grow it out on its 60-acre farm.
“We document everything when we grow it out and the surplus, we make available online and in our catalog so people all around the world can obtain it,” McDorman said. ”That is part of our mission, to redistribute. You can see things in our catalog you never see in other catalogs.”
Native Seeds/SEARCH also has a seed school, a grain school and a seed library school, which is six days where people can learn more about the topic. Students have gone on to start seed companies and seed libraries, a new movement – some are in public libraries – where people check out seeds, grow them out, and then return more than they borrowed.
“Communities are building their new diversity back into their lives through these seed libraries,” McDorman said. “Mostly, they all get caught up in the magic and power in seeds that we’ve sort of forgotten as modern people.
“We need to change,” he added. “The only real way, it seems to me, is the way we’ve done it for 10,000 years, where everybody had their own food and took part in it in their own region. You know what? The tomatoes tasted better. We took better care of each other. Let’s just go back and do that for a while.”
For details, visit www.nativeseeds.org