High-yield corn from ancient seed strains

It's a rain-thirsty land out here in New Mexico and Arizona. But even so, native American and Hispanic farmers are harvesting corn with high yields. How? By growing their crops from ancient seed strains. And these seeds just may provide some answers for long-range agricultural development in drought and famine areas as far away as Africa. At least that's the hope of the Talavaya Center, a two-year-old, nonprofit organization in Santa Fe, N.M. The organization recently received an award from the United Nations Environmental Program for its efforts in collecting and preserving Native American Blue Corn and other ancient seed strains that are staples of all 20 pueblo cultures in New Mexico and Arizona.

The most drought-resistant of the blue corns comes from the Hopi pueblo in northeastern Arizona. The stalks stand only 31/2 feet high, but each is capable of producing ears 18 inches in length. Several seeds are planted in the same hole, as deep as 16 inches into the desert sand, and the plants grow up in dusty isolated clumps with the colored ears ripening near the ground.

A traditional Hopi farmer may wander through the fields singing to the corn to give it courage, but the Blue Corn also has its special genetic gifts to protect it from the harsh environment of the high desert.

The Hopi Indian Reservation is a sun-scorched land dampened by rains and snows averaging a meager four to six inches annually. For centuries, the Indian farmers have survived in this semi-arid area that would generate looks of dismay from farmers accustomed to the more lush lands of the United States.

The Hopis are only one of the Pueblo peoples involved in the Talavaya project. Six other of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico, as well as Hispanic farmers in the state's Rio Grande Valley, have also joined the undertaking. In these areas, hardy varieties of corn, beans, squash, and other crops have evolved through hundreds of years of traditional farming.

Director John Kimmey started the Talavaya organization after talking with elderly Indian and Hispanic farmers and discovering there were only a few left who still planted the old seed strains of their ancestors.

``Many of the younger people were turning away from traditional farming and taking wage-earning jobs,'' says Mr. Kimmey, who has been associated with the Hopi for more than 20 years in educational capacities. ``Elderly farmers had no one to whom they could teach the legacy of the past.'' Many valuable seed strains were in danger of extinction. ``And these seeds have enormous potential to benefit third-world farmers,'' he adds.

The seeds are drought resistant, require little or no fertilizer, and adapt well to climatic changes, Mr. Kimmey says. He explains that the climate, altitude, and growing conditions on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and areas in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, where Talavaya is concentrating its efforts, are comparable to third-world regions such as northern India, the highlands of Central and South America, and parts of Africa.

An initial thrust of the Santa Fe Talavaya was to garner as many of the ancient seeds as possible. Indian and Hispanic farmers willingly shared their seed hordes when volunteers canvassed the areas. Other seeds were donated by archaeologists who discovered them when excavating ruins in Southwestern US. Over the past couple of years Talavaya's seed bank has burgeoned to more than 300 rare seed strains which are now growing in experimental gardens covering about 100 acres throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

It's Talavaya's plan to produce enough seed in these experimental ``grow-outs'' to supply more area farmers who, in turn, will produce additional crops and seed. Eventually, Talavaya hopes to send the rare seed strains overseas in quantity, along with trained agronomists and a handful of Native American and Hispanic farmers who will share their growing techniques with third-world peoples.

As an introductory step to this long-range plan, the center will open a subsidiary organization this year in Nairobi, Kenya. There, 50 strains of cultivars will be grown on 20 acres, providing a demonstration area where hunger-relief agencies can view the fruition of the drought-resistant seeds.

But helping small-scale and subsistance farmers in developing countries is just one prong of Talavaya's dual-purpose project. The organization also wants to spark a renaissance of agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley.

In addition to the Hopi and Hispanic farmers taking part in the revitalization venture, Indians in the pueblos of Tesuque, San Juan, Cochiti, Jemez, Nambe, and Taos are currently growing the seeds.

``Pueblo,'' a word of Spanish origin meaning village, was a name given to these agrarian Indian groups back in the 1500s by the Spanish conquerors. Their compact settlements, some of which feature tiered adobe dwellings, center around a central plaza with fields generally fringing the village.

In the fields at the San Juan Pueblo, about 30 miles from Santa Fe, farmers are growing hundreds of varieties of native plants and are also testing quinoa, a grain once grown by the Incas of Peru, and amaranth, a high-protein grain extensively cultivated by ancient Aztecs. In the traditional fields of Nambe, about 20 miles from Santa Fe, gardeners are experimenting with Hopi dry-farm melons and a colorful selection of Hopi corn -- red, pink, blue, and turquoise varieties.

``Some of the Hopi have been very generous with seeds,'' says Mr. Kimmey. Residents of other pueblos have found seeds in old tin cans and have donated them. Last year, ears of an ancient White Corn, believed to be extinct, were discovered at Taos Pueblo in a room sealed for 200 years. According to Mr. Kimmey, a Taos farmer is having great success with the seeds this year. ``The stalks are nine feet high and the ears 16 inches long,'' says the director, who is impressed by the long life of the seed s and their adaptive abilities.

To test the adaptive range of the Taos Blue Corn, Mr. Kimmey set up experiments with growers in all 50 states and found that it grew successfully in each state regardless of climate. ``This was seed that had been in storage for 50 years.''

``Native seeds aren't like modern hybrid seed,'' Mr. Kimmey explains. ``When they're planted correctly they produce themselves and do not require heavy doses of chemical fertilizer and pesticides.'' Mr. Kimmey points out that these are not irrelevant characteristics in third-world areas where most of the 140 million small-plot farmers are too poor to buy new hybrid seed each year and the expensive fertilizer and machinery such seed demands.

The shift toward hybrid seed, developed by large seed companies, has been going on for decades. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that by the year 2000, two-thirds of all seeds planted in the third world will be of uniform hybrid strains. Mr. Kimmey regards this trend as dangerous. ``There's strength in diversity,'' he says, warning that climatic changes or a new pest could wipe out entire crops and create more famine. The answer, he explains, is to make n on-hybrid, open-pollinated seed as commercially marketable as hybrids.

``We would like to work with world relief organizations, but it will be a few years before farmers here can grow enough seed to send large amounts to developing countries,'' says Carol Underhill, Talavaya's assistant director. Relief organizations, she says, need organically grown, drought-resistant seed that's not pre-coated with pesticides or in need of chemical additives to the soil.

Dr. Noel Brown, director of the UN's Evironmental Program for North America, explains that a group's culture has a definite impact on its small-scale, noncommercial agriculture, a point that is frequently overlooked. To grow seeds successfully in some third-world countries, he says, it's necessary to consider all the social, cultural, economic, and religious aspects of a people's relationship with food production.

For example, a group's ceremonial cycles in relation to crops must be considered. ``This is what we do,'' says Talavaya's Mr. Kimmey. ``We're not just in the seed business.'' He explains that Talavaya carefully researches the cultures of potential third-world growers to help prevent conflict between their beliefs and those of the Native Americans and Hispanic farmers who will supply the seed. According to Dr. Brown, Talavaya is one of the first groups to focus on the needs of small-lot farmers in this fashion.

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