Sierra Seeds’ founder has roots from upstate N.Y.
NEVADA CITY, Calif. — Sierra Seeds may be based in this northern California town, but its mission covers all of Turtle Island, the Native American name for North America.
And founder Rowen White traces her origins to the Mohawk Community of the Ahkwesahsne people in what is now upstate New York.
The Mohawk believe they are the descendants of the seeds, but that is the spiritual portion of a very practical dedication on White’s part.
Sierra Seeds and the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network exist to bring heirloom seeds back into native communities and beyond.
White calls this “rematriation,” rather than the more common ‘”repatriation,” since saving seeds is the women’s role in traditional indigenous culture.
Urbanization, pollution of the air, water and soil, and climate change are all affecting crops and the various seed saving networks are designed to augment the chances of growing healthy, nutritious food in various areas of the country.
White doesn’t like the term “food system;” she came up with “kincentric foodways” to emphasize the relationship between growing food and the entire culture of a people. “Food is not compartmentalized from the rest of life,” she said.
“The Italians came to America with tomato seeds sewn into their pockets and then found out tomatoes are not indigenous to Italy,” she said, but they are part of the existing culture of Italy.
The Indigenous Seed Keepers Network is within the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance which uses a mentorship program and a toolkit to teach seed policy issues and maintain ethical seed stewardship, protecting seeds from being patented and from bio-piracy.
These seed saving programs promote biodiversity in the face of many years of monoculture.
White points out when settlers forced indigenous people off their land they also separated them from some of their crops.
Although Sierra Seeds works closely with the indigenous community, White is dedicated to intercultural collaboration to restore a food commons providing access to all people.
“We need people with a blood memory of agriculture,” she said in a talk to the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey, noting technology is not the only thing that will save us. “We need a diverse culture of agriculture.”
She commented many people are making powerful contributions to maintaining the diversity of crops and preserving heirloom and other important seeds.
A more local group cooperating with White’s initiatives is the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in Ulster County, N.Y.
The farm hub has a 1,500-acre farm and provides farmer training with the goal of “fostering an equitable and ecologically resilient food system,” according to its mission statement.
The hub provides agriculture education, agronomic research and applied farmland ecology while providing healthy local food to the area.
Other local groups practice seed saving and seed sharing within their communities, but few are as far-reaching as White’s group.
White said she continues to speak before groups around the country to encourage the practice to continue.