Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is a nonprofit seed conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona. Our story began in 1983 when co-founders Barney Burns, Mahina Drees, Gary Nabhan and Karen Reichhardt worked on a food security Meals for Millions project to support the Tohono O’odham Nation in establishing gardens for their sustainable food needs. Over many generations, the forces of colonization and later globalization had eroded the cultures and economies and that kept these vital foods alive in the landscape. In discussions with tribal elders they were told “What we are really looking for are the seeds for the foods our grandparents used to grow.” This sage remark inspired the formation of Native Seeds/SEARCH as a collector and preserver of endangered traditional seeds from communities in the Southwest.
Since its founding, Native Seeds/SEARCH has been dedicated to conserving the rich agro-biodiversity of the arid Southwest. Preserved in our seed bank today are nearly 2,000 varieties of crops adapted to arid landscapes extending from southern Colorado to central Mexico, many of them rare or endangered. The collection represents the cultural heritage and farming knowledge of over 50 indigenous communities, as well as recent immigrants like Spanish missionaries and Mormon homesteaders. We also conserve a number of crop wild relatives, wild ancestors of domesticated plants.
These seeds, and the knowledge of how to grow them, represent sophisticated adaptations to the challenges of farming in the desert, adaptations that continue to be relevant to sustainable ecosystems of the future. Each growing season we regenerate a portion of the collection at different sites: at our 60-acre Conservation Farm in Patagonia, Az., at our Conservation Center gardens in Tucson and in partnership with numerous regional small farmers. We return some seeds to long-term cold storage, and distribute the surplus through sales at our retail store in Tucson, through our annual seedlisting, and online. Currently we offer over 500 varieties from the NS/S collection alongside Native fine art and crafts, gifts, heirloom Southwest foods, and more. All proceeds support our nonprofit mission and enable us to distribute seeds for free to Native American families and community gardens. In addition we are substantially supported by individual donations, memberships, and foundation grants.The resilience of our food systems depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and plant breeders can draw on the myriad genetic combinations as raw materials to develop new varieties better adapted to an uncertain and changing environment. Climate change, water scarcity, new and more virulent crop pests and diseases — all of these troubling trends currently threatening our food security require a wide pool of genetic diversity to prevent catastrophic crop failure and famine. Thirty-six years on from our founding, our priority today is no longer in collecting rare seeds, but in exploring the rich and varied potential of these plants to provide nutrition and livelihoods to today’s farmers, gardeners, and consumers. While continuing to preserve our collection, NS/S also provides high quality training in seed saving and farming techniques to empower communities to use and conserve this treasure themselves.