heritage corn, polyculture and more: seedkeeper rowen white of sierra seeds
SEEDKEEPER AND FARMER Rowen White’s roots are in the Mohawk Nation on the New York-Canada border, but she has set down deep ones in Northern California, too. There, she co-founded the Sierra Seeds cooperative and catalog that offers a diversity of local, organic, varieties that thrive in the unique Sierra foothills, and beyond.
I say “beyond” because some of those seeds came with Rowen from the colder, wetter Northeast, her “living, breathing relatives that want to live and grow with the earth, she says,” just as she does, “witnesses to the past” that tell stories that might otherwise be lost–stories she has dedicated herself to keeping alive. Like Rowen, the seeds have adapted to their new home, and thrived–including colorful corns for many distinct purposes both cultural and culinary.
Rowen (above, braiding corn), who was elected in 2014 to the board of Seed Savers Exchange, is also co-author of the handbook, “Breeding Organic Vegetables: A Step by Step Guide for Growers” (pdf). We spoke on my public-radio show and podcast about curating Native American seeds; about the benefits of polyculture (Rowen adds two “extra” sisters to the traditional Three Sisters arrangement); a Mexican relative of amaranth and quinoa that should be in your salad bowl, and more.
Read along as you listen to the Jan. 26, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my q&a with rowen white of sierra seeds
Q. I recall a story that involved tribal elders with coffee cans and Mason jars of their cultural and agricultural heritage in the form of seed, some of which they gifted to you. I wonder if you can refresh my memory about how you first intersected with seed, and then dedicated yourself to it?
A. When I was graduated from high school and moved on to college, I was going to a school in western Massachusetts, and I was working on an organic farm for the first time. My mother always had a garden but I was really getting into understanding where our food came from. I began to pull out all the seed packets at the beginning of the year and that sort of sparked my curiosity about where all those seeds came from.
I remembered from my own cultural lineage that we had stories of Three Sisters, and all of our ceremonial cycles being guided by the agricultural cycles, and realizing that I really didn’t know much about the agricultural traditions and the seeds and such.
It took me on a path that I am still on, 17 years later, to really find out a bit more about who I was through our agricultural heritage.
I raised a grant, and did an independent study, and went on the road and traveled around New York State and Canada, tracking down the elders who were still farming the old seeds, the heirlooms.
I made lifelong friendships with people and felt great privilege and honor that they were sharing their seeds, and not only their seeds but sharing their stories—their cultural memory about these seeds. Most were in baby-food jars of old flour and flint corn, beans, squash.
I really saw that there weren’t a lot of us in the younger generation who were asking questions about where our food was coming from, and what kinds of food we had grown 50, 100, 200 years ago.
Q. So you had to get yourself some baby-food jars to fill up, too.
A. It took a whole lot of courage for me to even plant those seeds in the ground because it was such a great responsibility.
Q. Oh, I know—people who have been mentors and I have loved and respected who have shared seeds, and it’s like, “Uh-oh.”
A. You have to take care of them. It became a real slippery slope of taking these journeys. I ended up writing my thesis on the interface between cultural restoration and genetic or seed restoration or conservation—how they go hand-in-hand. In order to restore a lot of our cultural traditions, it requires us to be eating a lot of our traditional foods again, and be saving those seeds, really honoring that part of who we were.
It was 15 years ago that I finished that work, and I’m just now picking that manuscript up and adding to it and revising it.
Q. Now you’re out West in Nevada City, California, doing the Sierra Seeds Cooperative. Tell us about it.
A. We relocated out West for work right when my first child was born, my daughter [above right with Rowen’s son], and immediately when we landed here it was like: Who are the seed people in this area? Who are the seed swappers?
I quickly found out there really wasn’t any activity, even though there was a vibrant food scene. So with a couple of farmer friends I met, we decided to host a seed swap—to revitalize it, really, as the one in the area had fallen to the wayside. We rented out a community space and put up flyers and brought some seed, and maybe 30 people showed up kind of curious about what a seed swap even was.
That was the humble beginnings of the Sierra Seeds cooperative. Many of us who were at that initial swap went on to take it to its current incarnation, which is a growers’ cooperative for seeds. We have a retail seed company and a growers’ network of around a dozen farmers and gardeners many of which grow for market, or for their own homestead.
We all commit to growing a certain number of seed crops each year, and then we pool them into our common office space and then repack under a retail label and have and online web store and retail racks in local health food stores and nurseries. We just try to get people to understand the importance of seed within our local food system.
Q. When you say Sierra’s local food system, in the Northern California foothills, what kinds of realities does the seed you work with have to face?
A. I always laugh because I brought all my Mohawk seeds out here and they were thrilled—they went from a Zone 3 to a Zone 7.
Q. “Give me a long season, Mommy, and let me stretch my roots!” [Laughter.]
A. We live at around 2,500 feet elevation, so it’s not as hot as the Sacramento Valley, the Central Valley, and it’s more beautiful, with forest, but it’s pretty dry. We have a distinctive wet season about six months of the year if we’re lucky, and then we have about six months where we get almost no rain.
For a seed farmer like myself that is quite nice, because we can irrigate and really control the humidity and moisture to have really good success with growing high-quality seed, but it also makes us really think long and hard about how we use our water resources, and what sorts of regional adaptation we’re working on: heat tolerance, drought resistance. Trying to develop seeds that are adapted to low-input, organic farms and gardens like here.
We start with some seeds that have been grown in this season for awhile; we import seeds from collections like the Native Seeds/SEARCH collection, and comb through all kinds of heirloom and heritage collection to finds ones that do really well.
We also do a variety trial program in our area. We get local farms to try varieties and see how they hold up, and that really informs us as a seed growers’ cooperative of which are worthwhile to keep in our catalog and work on.
Q. Do you have customers who order from elsewhere–other bio-regions?
A. A huge part of this bio-regional and organic seed movement has used local as a way to really promote what we’re doing. But I also think that in our region, we can grow certain seed crops really well, but we recognize that there are places like the Willamette Valley [in Oregon] or the Skagit Valley [in Washington], where they can grow seed crops that don’t grow well here—like cooler-season brassicas. They do grow much better for seed in those regions.
What I’m realizing as we go forward is that in what people are looking for, local is important, but it’s really also about decentralization of the seed system.
Q. I think that’s a good point.
A. So what we offer and many of our friends and sister/brother seed companies like Adaptive Seeds or Hudson Valley Seed Library or Uprising Seeds or Siskiyou Seeds—what we all offer is more transparency. Here are the faces behind your seeds. Here are farmers that you know, you know that they practice good family farming with good ethics.
A. We do send seed all over the country, and people give us really good feedback on how our seeds are doing in other places. I do think that we try to cater to a certain bio-region, but the seed can go all over.
Just as we want diversity in the seeds that we have, we also need to recognize on a whole that we need diversity in the ways that we distribute seeds.
Our main niche customer: mostly gardeners, small to mid-range organic farmers, permaculture homesteaders, microfarms. But I realize that there are companies like Johnny’s or High Mowing that cater to a different niche—maybe mid- or large-scale organic farms.
There’s room for us all.
Q. I know you have been curating a collection of rare squash, beans and corn—heritage crops—for many years. Corn is a particular passion, yes? [Above, Navajo Robin’s Egg flour corn from Sierra.]
A. When I began going around and collecting the seed, I never really had a deep connection or reverence for corn, or all that it has given our people as Mohawk people. But I learned that we had dozens of different corns that had been traditionally grown in the Northeast for all kinds of reasons, and began gathering them.
Some had common origins but had split off with different families stewarding them—a different aesthetic, maybe, like if it was for a multicolored corn, maybe one selecting for the pink kernels, and another for the blue. So you see how over seed generations how you can really change the corn.
Q. The roads diverge.
A. And you see that corn really is a co-creation of the plants, and humans. Corn doesn’t really exist in this form in the wild; it was this really interesting intersection between plants and humans. You see how quickly corn adapts from the tip of South America all the way up onto Canada.
The corns I have in my collection are primarily a Northeast flour and flint types—eight rows if you count them around–with extremely short maturation times, like 80 to 100 days. They’re productive, short and squat, and really nutritious. That was my initial love affair with corn–seeing all the shapes, shades, and colors, and how in many of our traditional foods it was a featured ingredient. Also in our Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, creation myth, corn figures very prominently, so it shows its cultural importance. It really was our sustenance, along with the beans and squash.
Q. You said flint corn—so tell me what that is. I see some in your catalog.
A. Flint corn is a type of corn with a much harder seed coat, so it’s the corn you would grind to make either grits, or polenta. Flour corn by comparison just has a much starchier endosperm in the middle, so it’s easier to grind into flour.
Q. You talk about the Three Sisters in the Sierra Seeds catalog, and sell it as a seed collection, too, and I think I saw a vintage picture on your blog—but I’m confused now because in one instance it contained five plants, not three.
A. [Laughter.] I always like to honor the other two sisters, because they don’t get as much publicity. In doing my research I realized that Mohawk people and indigenous people everywhere were practicing a lot of polyculture, growing corn as the central trellis and the beans that wraps around and the squash at the bottom.
But two other really culturally significant plants that our people grew were a type of tobacco, Nicotiana rustica—beautiful, and an insectary plant for the bees…
Q. ..and hummingbirds probably, too…
A. Yes, and carpenter bees and others. Many indigenous peoples would use tobacco water as something you’d soak your seeds in, that would eliminate issues of rot in the ground
Q. From nicotine, because it’s antifungal?
A. Yes. And the other forgotten sister is the sunflower, another very important plant in our traditional diets because it provided the essential fat, with the seeds being very fatty and nourishing, and it also provided a trellis for beans as well. Some of the beans in my collection I’d call a cornfield bean—like a half-runner, not really vigorous pole beans. They have tendrils but not so vigorous to take the corn down. Then there are some beans in my collection that are very vigorous, and hold up much better around a sunflower.
Q. So you make very important choices of partnerships between the plants. And one of the important attributes of the squash at the base of this whole thing is that it has some spiny-ness and can deter some animals…
A. …like raccoons, yes.
Q. I saw in pictures that the corn and the other sisters were planted on a mound—a hill, like you might do pumpkins or squash on a hill or mound.
A.Yes, they are. Back in the days when I was on my curious seed trail in college, I actually did a replicated scientific experiment about the difference between monoculture and polyculture.
I set up replicated plots of Three Sisters, and then the monoculture versions of the same crops, and calculated the yields—in scientific terms using “land equivalent ratios,” because you may have to space things farther apart when you do Three Sisters gardening.
But when you stack things and use vertical space like that, you actually get higher yields per square foot than in monoculture.
A. The red Aztec spinach or Huauzontle is an amaranth relative from Mexico, and is a great insectary crop—and is a nutrient-dense green that can be eaten at many stages.
I’m also adding several more of my Haudenosaunee collection seeds, including the skunk bean, a really beautiful black and white vigorous pole bean [below] that looks like a starry night.
It’s a real success story because I was handed maybe a dozen seeds in my hand, and now I have a 5-gallon bucket—though it was on the brink of extinction. I’m seeing it some other seed catalogs, too, and it’s a story of these old varieties and how we make them relevant today.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 26, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(All photos courtesy of Rowen White at Sierra Seeds.)