Germination Of A Dream

by Andy Balestracci, October 16, 2013

Linda MacElwee & Andy Balestracci

Linda MacElwee & Andy Balestracci

A long lost envelope of tomato seeds received from relatives in Italy haunts me to this day. My memory of it was of two varieties of saved local tomato varieties neatly folded and labeled from the home garden of my grandfather’s cousin in northern Italy. They sat in a file drawer in my father’s office for many years, long after their viability to germinate had waned and before my seed saving addiction had become my opiate of choice.  But the ghost of those lost varieties--their sun ripened flavor, fresh from the summer gardens in the town of Barbarasco--and that those farmers valued them enough to grow and save for perhaps generations are lost now.  Unfortunately similar stories are being repeated now at an alarming rate. This ten thousand year human experiment of agriculture and its subsequent proliferation of genetic food plant diversity have, in the last hundred years of industrialization, seen a rapid decline. There are a multitude of factors. One of the primary causes is due to narrow global commercial interests feeding the growing urban centers being populated by more of the human family moving off rural lands. The saving of seed varieties is a tenuous thread that can be lost within a decade--the outside viability of most food seeds.
The idea for Diaspora Seeds as a local producer and seller of heirloom vegetable, herb, and flower seeds is to provide a bulwark against that shortsighted and heedless loss. I think everyone can appreciate the spontaneous smile that you get when eating a freshly harvested tomato, kale, or beans out of your garden--the taste, the nutrition, and the primal satisfaction of growing your own food. Linda and I have, for the last twenty years, been searching out seeds that are perhaps a bit obscure or in a precarious situation as only a few older farmers are growing a variety out. Obscurity and fragility are not reasons to think that these heritage seed gems are worthless. Rather the opposite--many times the only fact that these seed varieties are still hanging on is that they are incredibly drought hardy, delicious, highly productive, or disease and pest resistant. The idea that all of us are part of the human diaspora--from the Greek meaning a scattering of seeds--and the plant seed heritage we carry is cause for great optimism. In the midst of this massive movement of peoples and seed there has never been a more productive time worldwide for all of us to find and grow these varieties that are suited to our climate, dietary needs, and local food security issues.

Twenty four years ago while living in Nepal, a sojourn that started as an academic year in Tibetan Studies and morphed into three years of observing and traveling the myriad bioregions and communities from the lowland jungle of the Terai, the 6,000 ft. high rice paddies of the Kathmandu valley to the hardy 11,000 ft.  barley fields of the high Himalaya of Dolpo.  My eyes were opened to the power of seed diversity. Such an assortment of climates and food existed all within the fifty-mile width of the country. For all of the challenges that exist there--high population growth pushing at environmental limits--it was heavy reinforcement for the idea that the best place to look for food sustainability is in the relatively intact rural communities of the world. The collective trial and error of 1,000 summers of decisions by farmers’ intimate eco-literacy of place, based on nutrition, production, or resiliency--not patentability nor the ability to ship a tomato a continent away.

A few years later, back in the States and living in Tucson, I walked into a demonstration garden run by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a non-profit involved in the preservation of Native Southwestern food crops. The garden curator was a young woman with an easy smile and a passionate seed saving, uber hipster. We planted a small plot of Gila River Sweet Corn that day. I was hooked--for heirloom seeds and Linda. We’re celebrating twenty years together this year. I went on to work for the organization restoring an old adobe building, the Sylvester House, that became their new seed storage and processing site. Some folks might be impressed by monumental architecture or great art, but for me it was the awe I felt walking the rows of floor to ceiling shelves of labeled heirloom seed jars in their seed bank. Potluck lunches there were legendary, like Tepary bean stews homeopathically spiced with native perennial chiltepin hot peppers and baked Tohono O’odham H:al Squash. Linda and I were gratefully invited to a number of Native American and Hispanic farmers’ fields and homes that really stretched our conceptions about what agriculture is supposed to look like. Healthy abundant crops of tepary beans grow from the isolated summer monsoon rain runoff channeled off seasonally dry arroyos in Mayo Indian communities near Sonora, Mexico. The improbable dry-farmed corn and squash fields grow in what looks like infertile and parched southwestern desert sand at Hotevilla and Oraibi on the Hopi Reservation with a variety of corn, Hopi Pink, that is seeded 10 inches BELOW the surface to make optimal use of subsurface soil moisture.

In 1997 we made it out to a very different climate as farm apprentices at Green Gulch Farm in foggy Muir Beach, California. If an apprenticeship was ever a crucible for a steep learning curve, Green Gulch was it for us. Besides being one of the oldest certified organic farms in California it is also a Japanese Zen Buddhist Practice Center. What this translated into as a daily schedule was rise and shine at 4:30am for the start of two 40-minute zazen sitting meditations, then out to the fields at 6:30 a.m. for harvest of the six acres planted in cool weather annual crops like lettuce, chard, potatoes, garlic, and beets for market. Then the rest of the workday, evening zazen and … gratefully bed. Something resonated and we stayed 4 years between Green Gulch Farm and a sister community, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the Ventana Wilderness Area in Monterrey County, which included a stint as a baker for me and kitchen manager for Linda.

In the spring of 2000 we got an itch to get back out in the world to carry forward what we had learned. Through an acquaintance at San Francisco Zen Center we heard of an opportunity at a property newly purchased by Melody and Paul Haller in Philo. In April we were hired as Landscape and Garden Managers and moved onto the 160-acre Shenoa Resort property outside of Philo. Little did we know at the time what a blessing it was to be transplanted into that Eden. Linda and I had been fairly nomadic up until that time but it was that first year we realized we had found a valley and community to call home.

The intervening years saw us move on from Shenoa to produce food at the Boonville Hotel garden. I then became the cheesemaker at the Elk Creamery, the first certified organic goat dairy in California and a few years later the Director of Operations at Thanksgiving Coffee.

After so many years of seed saving efforts overtaking shelves and the rooms of our home, we felt besides hosting the annual seed exchange at the Mendocino Permaculture Seed & Scion Exchange, we needed to reach a larger audience to carry forward these seeds. We started Diaspora Seeds this past winter, which began with a modest selection of approximately 30 varieties of seed, 95% of which we grew ourselves with organic methods and all produced locally in Mendocino County. All our seeds are open pollinated which means you can grow the plant let it go to seed, and then plant that seed the following year. Many are rare heirloom varieties from around the world.  This summer’s harvest will nearly double our offerings and we’re busy harvesting, cleaning seed, and making the new labels. The seeds are available on our website at www.diasporaseeds.com  and a number of local businesses now carry our seeds. We’re excited about the response we have received from the community and beyond and are looking to expand our acreage this winter and spring. We have also been in conversation with other farmers interested in growing seed for us as well--all towards a strong effort to strengthen our food choices and abilities. Happy growing!

This article is #9 in the Connecting With Local Food series brought to you by AV Foodshed Group.  To read past articles, go to www.mendocinolocalfood.org.  Next week the Zeni Ranch will be featured as a prelude to the 32nd annual Chestnut Gathering and local food potluck on November 2, 2013.

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