Article by Nicholas Garber. Conservation Program Manager. Published December 11, 2017
Last May, Native Seeds/SEARCH announced our 2017 Adopt-a-Crop campaign. During our campaigns we draw upon NS/S members and supporters to provide financial assistance with growing out rare and endangered seed varieties form the Seed Bank Collection to obtain fresh seed and ensure the long-term survival of the varieties. This year’s campaign focused on Drum Gourds, Fort Apache Sunflower, Rio Lucio Pumpkin, Tohono O’odham June Corn, and Wild Scarlet Runner Beans. We are forever grateful for the support we received which allowed us to grow out these seed varieties and several dozen other collections. Supporters who donated $100 or more will receive a seed packet of their adopted crop.
A final update about the campaign will be sent to all supporters in the Spring after final seed processing is complete. Several varieties are still curing and seed will be processed in the coming months.
The drum gourds planted at the Conservation Center in Tucson have had a very long season which ended just a few nights ago with our first freeze. Drum gourds need a long season in order to reach their full size at 70-90 pounds. Ours didn’t quite reach that size, but they are healthy and likely loaded with seeds. Next will be a long period of curing as we wait for the gourds to dry and the ripe seeds to harden. For gourds as well as many squash species, this last step is critical for producing the best quality seeds possible; we’ll keep them inside for 2-3 months while the seeds inside continue to mature and draw nutrients from the fruit. We will likely begin processing these seeds in February or March, but feel free to visit our curing gourds in the seed lab before the cure is done!
Drum Gourd growing in the field at the NS/S Conservation Center in Tucson.
We will be planting these gourds again in Phoenix with Frank Martin at Crooked Sky Farms next warm season. We hoped to get bigger gourds to present to Yoeme deer dancers who make these into drums for ceremonies, but ours are a little undersized. With Frank’s help, I’m sure we will get even larger, suited-to-drumming gourds next fall.
Fort Apache Sunflower:
The Fort Apache Sunflower was grown at the Tucson Conservation Center in one of the many beautiful beds prepared by our wonderful volunteers. We had a VERY limited amount of seed to start with, just a small handful. Sheryl, our collections manager, didn’t want to let it out of her sight. Germination was good, but it was a battle from the beginning with the dreaded, voracious roundtail ground squirrel. Those adorable demons nibbled seedlings to the ground after squeezing through chicken wire domes, and were equally undeterred when the cages were buried 2 feet into the ground. We replaced the chicken wire with hardware cloth, but when the sunflower heads emerged, those devious acrobats climbed right up the stems and even beat the birds to the seeds. We then covered the heads with mesh bags that work to exclude birds, and the ground squirrels chewed right through. Finally, we replaced the mesh bags with thick paper bags, and got a fairly good harvest. We are currently processing the seed and hope to have it packaged in the new year.
Fort Apache Sunflower with mesh bags to protect the maturing seeds.
Wild Scarlet Runner:
Pumpkins suffered from the grasshopper apocalypse at our farm this season - but nothing like our beans. We were very successful with the Hopi Purple String bean, but the grasshoppers were so severe they left us with literally no harvest from the teparies, limas, or the Wild Scarlet Runner bean this year. The Wild Scarlet Runner started the season strong, but the flowers proved irresistible to grasshoppers, and not one pod set on the vines. All is not lost, though! Scarlet runners belong to a bean species (Phaseolus coccineus) that produces a persistent tuber underground giving the plant a true perennial life cycle. So, while we set no pods this season, the robust vines did provide for healthy tubers in the soil. Next spring, when temperatures begin to climb, we will resume irrigating the field, and, if the grasshoppers cooperate, reap a bountiful harvest from the established vines. To those generous supporters who adopted this crop, we would like to make the Four Corners Scarlet Runner bean available. It is a very close relative and can be planted well before we will be able to harvest the Wild Scarlet Runner next fall.
Rio Lucio Pumpkin:
The Rio Lucio Pumpkin had a difficult season at our Conservation Farm, in Patagonia, AZ. We waited to plant until after the last two freezes hit our farm in May. Unfortunately, the vines started blooming just as the Great Grasshopper Plague of 2017 ™ was climbing to epidemic proportions. Like the Navajo Pumpkin we also planted in Patagonia this year, the grasshoppers made quick work digesting the leaves and most of the flowers while the vines were setting fruits and the monsoon rains arrived. Unlike the Navajo pumpkin, whose few fruits survived the season without any direct grasshopper damage, the Rio Lucio Pumpkins were frequently skinned by hordes of grasshoppers burrowing past the rind and chewing into the seeds! Nevertheless, we still managed to set a good crop of fruit that will allow us to save a healthy amount of seed. We all would have preferred a larger crop of pumpkins from such a diverse accession (look at the variety of shapes, sizes and colors!) but we are grateful for the harvest we got. We are processing the seed currently, and after germination testing we will package them in the new year.
Rio Lucio Squash damaged from grasshoppers. Notice the lack of leaves.
Tohono O'odham June Corn:
Corn can be a difficult crop for our Conservation Farm. Higher elevation varieties have done well there, but Patagonia is not a good environment for every corn variety in the collection. Keeping with the trend, Navajo Copper Popcorn flourished this warm season, and we have a decent harvest of beautiful kernels. The Tohono O’odham June Corn we planted did not fare as well. June Corn is traditionally planted with the monsoon rains and needs a long season to fully ripen and dry in the field. As sometimes happens we had good ear set on beautiful, upright plants, but development was slowed by limited monsoon rains and considerable leaf damage by grasshoppers. Then, heavy fall rains late in the season soaked the drying ears, encouraged insect infestations, and drew clever ravens who stripped the buggy cobs clean. We have observed an increase in late summer/early fall rains over recent seasons which really damages crops like corn while they’re in their critical drying down stage. We did have an early harvest of immature ears, but the seeds have limited viability and are expected to have a shorter shelf life. This is one of the reasons we’ll be working with partner farmers next warm season to grow the incredible corns in the collection at locations nearer their places of origin, where they are better adapted to weather patterns and more likely to produce high quality seed for saving and distribution.
Grasshopper damage on Tohono O'odham June Corn.
So, we had some wins and some losses this season, and that in short, is farming -- there are no guarantees. In the upcoming seasons, we will be tackling this uncertainty by diversifying what, where, how, and with whom we will be raising the precious agricultural legacy in the Native Seeds/SEARCH collection. By working with a diversity of farmer partners, in and adjacent to Native American communities, these plants will benefit from a wealth of knowledge bases and thrive in conditions to which they have adapted over generations of farming. By decentralizing our production, we will also be promoting the profession of farming, limiting the risk of catastrophic losses from growing on one farm, and maintaining the adaptations that these crops have made to diverse, challenging environments. In this and future seasons, Native Seeds/SEARCH is grateful for your continued support.