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Coalition Receives Grant to Promote Arid-Adapted Heritage Grains in Southern Arizona

A ground-breaking collaboration of farmers and organizations in southern Arizona has been awarded a two-year, $50,000 grant by the Western SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) program to revive the production, milling, distribution, and marketing of the oldest extant grain varieties adapted to the arid Southwest: White Sonora soft bread wheat and Chapalote flint corn. Native Seeds/SEARCH, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Hayden Flour Mills, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, Cultivate Santa Cruz, Tubac Historical Society, Amado Farms Joint Venture, and Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage will work with small-scale beginning farmers as well as low-income tortilla makers and bakers in the proposed Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area to increase our region’s food diversity and food security in the face of climate change and an evolving agricultural landscape. Cereal grains are fundamental to the diets of most people in the Southwest, yet local production and processing of regionally-adapted grains is a missing element in efforts to increase our region’s food security and to offer staples to low-income populations at risk of hunger. Through a diversity of complementary approaches, the funded project aims to address this gap by re-introducing Chapalote corn and White Sonora wheat into sustainable food production regimes in the arid Southwest; establishing fruitful exchanges of information among producers, millers, bakers, and other stakeholders; and ensuring that the use of these heritage grains reaches food-insecure families in our region and that they are enlisted in producing value-added products as new sources of income. Chapalote flint corn and White Sonora wheat have reputations for drought tolerance, yield stability and excellent nutritional qualities, and have deep cultural ties to the desert borderlands. They are the oldest varieties of their species to reach the Arizona deserts as farmed crops, Chapalote arriving roughly 4,200 years ago and White Sonora arriving with Spanish missionaries in the late 17th century. Both crops suffered declines in cultivation as water- and fertilizer-responsive varieties took precedence in irrigated agriculture in the Southwest. They became commercially unavailable in Arizona and adjacent areas of Mexico by 1975, though Native Seeds/SEARCH has maintained both Chapalote and White Sonora in its seed bank and has continued to make them available to growers in the Southwest. Interestingly, two of the project sites (Avalon Organic Gardens and Tubac Presidio State Historic Park) may be on the very ground where Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino first introduced White Sonora wheat to Arizona, and the Community Food Bank’s two farms are within a few miles of where the oldest Chapalote-like maize was found in the U.S. This project seeks to reduce regional food insecurity by providing these culturally-appropriate staple grains through best practices for sustainable agricultural production which reduce water and energy consumption. The coalition’s shared aspiration is that the recovery of these arid-adapted grains into our food system will reward farmers who are willing to be good stewards of our agricultural diversity, soil and water resources, and improve the quality of life and nutritional health of low-income residents in our region. The project will educate, train and benefit others through several events and training workshops, and collaborators will produce a number of educational publications. The agricultural community at large in the arid Southwest will benefit from the project’s documentation of soil management techniques that are compatible with winter wheat or summer maize production. The project will also serve as a regional testbed for a formal system of community seed exchange that lowers the barrier to entry for small-scale farmers while simultaneously increasing seed stocks so that additional farmers may participate. By putting such a model into practice, the project will have the effect of increasing the available seed supply of White Sonora wheat and Chapalote corn in the Southwest. Western SARE is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that offers competitive grants conducted cooperatively by farmers, ranchers, researchers, and other agriculture professionals to advance farm and ranch systems that are profitable, environmentally sound, and good for communities. For more information about this project, please contact Chris Schmidt, Director of Conservation at Native Seeds/SEARCH, at 520-622-0830 x111 or [email protected] Additional information about the project participants may be obtained by visiting their websites: Amado Farms Joint Venture: Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage: Community Food Bank of Tucson: Cultivate Santa Cruz: Hayden Flour Mills: Native Seeds/SEARCH: Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance: Tubac Historical Society:

Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail

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