Our Work

Seed Bank

NS/S utilizes a two-pronged approach to conserving crop genetic resources from the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico. Ex situ approaches involve conserving samples of crop seeds under frozen storage conditions, where they may remain viable (able to germinate) for long periods of time. We also utilize in situ approaches that support and encourage the ongoing relationship between people and plants through which both natural and human selection pressures continue to result in the development of new crop varieties – the same relationship between people and plants that produced the diversity present today.

The NS/S Seed Bank is at the core of our conservation efforts. It serves as a repository for seeds, guarded in a safe environment for the proverbial "rainy day". In this case, the rainy day is when a crop can no longer be found growing in a farmer's field. Domesticated crops depend on an intimate relationship with humans - they don't exist in the wild. Over thousands of years, traditional agriculturists have selected and saved seed from plants that expressed a diversity of traits of interest to them or their communities - the ability to mature before the first frost, a sweeter taste, faster cooking time, or resistance to specific insects or diseases. Local, regional and global food security depends on this diversity. A seed bank's primary function is to conserve this genetic diversity for the future.

Conservation Farm

On December 19, 1997, NS/S and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) each purchased a portion of a 160-acre farm in Patagonia, Arizona. NS/S bought 60-acres of rich flood plain fields away from the creeks and TNC purchased the remaining 100 acres of farm, including the creek bottom and neighboring corridor of native Sacaton grass and cottonwood trees. While TNC would work to preserve the Sonoita Creek riparian corridor running through its newly acquired land, NS/S would use the flood plain fields to grow and conserve native crops.

The first grow-out occurred in the summer of 1998. Beginning with one acre of land, we grew about 40 different accessions of crops. Weeds were by far the biggest challenge (that and the 2-hour round-trip daily commute from Tucson!). Since then, we’ve continued to increase both the number of acres being managed as well as the number of crops being grown each year. A typical season consists of regenerating between 200 and 350 accessions on 12-15 acres, seed increase, and growing crops identified for specific projects, such as seed stock for Tarahumara farmers in the Sierra Madre or a new seed bank initiative at Hopi. Remaining fields are covered cropped, often with cereal/legume mixes to add nutrients and organic matter to our soils.

Southwest Regis-Tree

Combining food folklore with in situ plant conservation, the Southwest Regis-Tree seeks to document, protect and promote the threatened heirloom perennial species and varieties adapted to the Southwest.

Just as remaining varietal diversity of annual crops faces myriad challenges to its continued existence, so too does diversity of perennial fruit and nut varieties. Consolidation in the nursery trade has greatly reduced the diversity of tree crops available to the public, while climate change, catastrophic weather events, and neglect continue to whittle down the number of ancient heirloom trees in our landscapes.

Cultural Memory Bank

Cultural memory banking, a term coined by anthropologist Virginia Nazarea, recognizes the intimate link existing between human cultures and their crops. In the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico, farmers are the keepers of many traditions. Unfortunately, they are becoming a diminishing force in many communities. Fewer and fewer youths move into the agricultural sector, choosing instead to pursue educational or job opportunities elsewhere. Thus, the knowledge associated with planting, cultivating, harvesting, and using the crops long associated with these cultures is at risk of being lost. Though seed banks conserve germplasm, they do not typically also conserve the traditional knowledge that develops over generations of agricultural practice – knowledge that would enrich our understanding of how a crop was cultivated and utilized within a community and hopefully provide critical insight on managing these resources for future generations.

In the late 1990s, NS/S undertook to expand our seed bank efforts to include a cultural component, integrating cultural information – the agricultural practices, stories, songs, and recipes associated with specific crops in the seed bank – with our existing database of collection information. In effect, we would combine the geneticist's concern for conserving unique traits of a crop with a folklorist's concern for conserving oral history about the crop.

Sierra Madre Project

The Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico has been recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a mega center of biological diversity – it contains an estimated 4,000 plant species including the richest diversity of pre-Columbian domesticated crops in the Americas. This area is the homeland of the Tarahumara, who for centuries have maintained a subsistence-style agriculture composed of corn, beans and squash within the deep canyons and high plateaus that define the Sierra Madre. The Tarahumara also utilize as food, fiber and medicine more than 300 different species from the surrounding forests.

The NS/S Sierra Madre Project originally emerged in response to the potential threat of a forestry project proposed by the World Bank that would have resulted in serious environmental damage to the fragile Sierra Madrean ecosystem in northern Chihuahua and had devastating impact on the way of life of the Tarahumara. Long-term goals of this project include: (a) promoting conservation strategies that focus on preserving the ecological integrity of the Sierra Madre while meeting the cultural and economic needs of Tarahumara communities; (b) building local capacity through training and technical assistance, and encourage local responsibility; and (c) implementing model projects – designed by local residents – to address deforestation and conservation of biological resources.

RAFT Alliance

The idea of conserving species has been around for a long time. Concern about the possible loss of specific foods and the culinary traditions associated with their preparation has emerged as a conservation priority.

Travelers to the Pueblos in the late 1500’s noted the high degree of crop and food diversity present, indicated it was the norm rather than the exception. Since that time, two-thirds of the distinctive seeds and breeds which then fed America have vanished. One in fifteen wild, edible plant and animal species on this continent has diminished to the degree that it is now considered at risk. These declines in diversity bring losses in traditional ecological and culinary knowledge as well as the food rituals linking communities to place and cultural heritage.

In an effort to rescue endangered foods and revitalize those that remain, a coalition of experts on sustainable agriculture, biodiversity conservation and food aficionados has initiated RAFT-Renewing America’s Food Traditions. The RAFT initiative is dedicated to documenting, celebrating, and safeguarding the unique foods of North America—not as museum specimens, but as elements of living cultures and regional cuisines. The campaign will explore novel means to support traditional ethnic communities that are striving to make these foods once again part of their diets, ceremonies, and local economies. In short, it aims to protect and revive the remaining culinary riches unique to this continent, and support those who are reintegrating them into the diversity of cultures that are rooted in the American soil.