Local organization grows American Indian crops, sells seeds as far away as Norway
Where does a Norwegian gardener turn when he needs corn that can mature fast enough for his nation’s exceedingly short growing season?
Tucson, of course.
That’s where Eilif Aas turned, said Kevin Dahl, executive director of Tucson’s Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization that sold Aas a strain of Tohono O’odham corn seed that matures in just 60 days.
The Norway connection is an example of how the organization preserves American Indian crops that are used less and less by farmers and gardeners.
“We’re working to push forward systems that have sustained people here for centuries and centuries. . . . It’s almost like an endangered species program,” Dahl said.
Native Seeds/SEARCH grows corn, squash, beans and other American Indian crops at its farm in Patagonia. The seeds are then sold to farmers and gardeners through the mail and a store at 526 N. Fourth Ave., which also carries food grown with the seeds, Dahl said.
The group grew out of a nutrition program called Meals for Millions in the 1980s. Since then, the group has collected more than 3,000 seed varieties in its “bank.” The bank consists of row after row of jars of various sizes at the store and in a converted house near the University of Arizona.
The group has outgrown its warehouse, and last week the Tohono O’odham Nation donated $50,000 to put toward a new warehouse. A grant of $150,000 from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust should help Native Seeds/SEARCH get its warehouse this year, Dahl said.
Tucsonan Shannon Scott has grown crops from Native Seeds/SEARCH seed for 10 years. Her garden on West Pennington Street includes corn and squash, she said.
“I wanted to grow foods that were grown by people who have lived here the longest,” she said. “It also allows me to participate in the food history of the area.”
A few years ago, the group helped rediscover a native plant thought to be extinct. American Indians used to plant panicgrass in mud flats left behind by Colorado River floods, but they stopped after Hoover Dam put a halt to most flooding.
The plant was thought to be gone, Dahl said.
“But we found it growing along another river in Sonora,” he said.
Shelves in the Native Seeds/SEARCH store are lined with food made from local ingredients.
Mesquite pancake mix, cholla buds, local honey (which can help relieve allergies because pollen in it can stimulate production of antibodies), Arizona agave syrup (good on pancakes, says Dahl) and Tohono O’odham tepary beans are among them.
The store is also a great spot for souvenirs, said Karen Fuglie, a retiree from Minnesota who is nearing the end of her first winter in Tucson. She was in the shop Tuesday picking up goodies for folks back home.
“There’s an authenticity to things here that I normally don’t find in the souvenir shops,” she said.
IF YOU GO
What: Native Seeds/SEARCH store
Where: 526 N. Fourth Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday
ON THE WEB
Native Seeds/SEARCH: www.nativeseeds.org