The New Naturalism : A New Mexico Gardener’s Living Laboratory : Agriculture: Seeds of Change organic farmer seeks to put diversity back into the food chain.
Master gardener Gabriel Howearth is walking the fields on a farm here called Seeds of Change. A summer thunderstorm has just cooled the earth, the sun is shining, and the air is perfumed with scent of chocolate daisies, purple basil, and acres of glistening, organically grown vegetables.
Sunlight gleams in Howearth’s brownish-blonde dreadlocks as he bends down to tend an exotic-looking bean plant.
“These are Tarahumara garbanzo beans,” Howearth says, splitting open a round pod of two dark brown peas. “They’re drought-tolerant, extremely rich-tasting and they have a good nutritional balance of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.” Brushing off his dirt-covered hands, he adds, “I got the seeds when I was farming with some Tarahumara Indians in Northern Mexico.” Howearth, whose grandmother was part Tarahumara, says he feels a spiritual bond with this and the nearly 700 other rare varieties of native cultivars that he is growing at the remarkably diverse Seeds of Change farm.
Located in the last southern fling of the Rocky mountains, two hours’ drive from the Mexican border, the Gila farm may sound like a hippie, back-to-the-land paradise, but it’s actually the living laboratory of Seeds of Change, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based company specializing in the blossoming field of ecologically sustainable agriculture.
“We set up Seeds of Change to address the problem of organic seed availability and to grow a commercial supply of Gabriel Howearth’s seed bank,” says Kenny Ausubel, a journalist and filmmaker who is the company’s executive director. “We want to introduce diverse seeds back into the food chain to help strengthen our food supply and most important, promote biological diversity.”
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, biological diversity, or biodiversity, is of urgent concern among those in environmental and organic farming circles. Biodiversity is also shaping up into one of the hottest buzzwords of the ‘90s: Human encroachment, industrial agriculture and pollution are helping speed the extinction of various living things, and irreplaceable biologically diverse genetic material is disappearing daily. “No one knows how many plant species are disappearing each day,” Howearth says, “but for every plant that vanishes, so will the 20 to 40 animal species which rely on it.”
Accordingly, Howearth and his comrades in Seeds of Change have turned their farm into a thriving center of planetary diversity. “This region is an overlap of the Atlantic, Rockies and Madrean regions,” Howearth explains, “and these conditions give us the potential to grow one third of the world’s flora varieties on this farm with collections of plants that grow in similar ecologies worldwide.” The 120-acre Gila farm boasts a 250-day growing season, has never been chemically farmed and borders on 3 million acres of national forest, half of which is designated wilderness without roads.
“We’re specializing in growing hardy, high-nutrition foods that are drought-tolerant and require very low maintenance,” says Howearth. “Our goal is to get all kinds of people, even those who work and have limited leisure time, to grow their own food--in their back yards, on their balconies, or on their rooftops.”
With his tautly muscled frame, celestial blue eyes, sandy brown beard and languid manner, Howearth (his real name) by turns resembles a distracted monk and a displaced Southern California surfer. In fact, he grew up in Northern San Diego and Orange Counties, and spent a lot of time on a surfboard. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in architectural landscaping.
“I started my first garden when I was 18 at Fullerton,” says Howearth, who is now 36. “I was interested in diversity even then. I planted vegetables, flowers and culinary herbs. And I always farmed organically.”
Howearth stepped up his growing schedule at Santa Cruz, where he apprenticed with Alan Chadwick, a horticulturist and disciple of the Austrian philosopher and clairvoyant, Rudolph Steiner, who founded Bio-Dynamic Agriculture. Chadwick had set up a model garden on campus based on the French Intensive method; it was an interpretation of Bio-Dynamics.
Later Howearth trained with Peter Dukish, another “Steinerian” who was developing a major community garden and tree-planting project in Los Angeles. “Where Chadwick emphasized the more practical aspects of Steiner’s philosophy of growing healthy plants, Dukish focused on developing sensitivity and what I call the ‘spiritual’ sides of the question, namely, the interactions, if they will let them happen harmoniously, between people and nature.” It was around this time that Howearth acquired the nickname, “Farmer Gabriel.”
Howearth farmed with Indian tribes--the Tarahumara, Quechua, Hopi, Pueblo and Odoham--throughout North and South America. But, he says, “it wasn’t until I tried to break my farming destiny and attend acupuncture school in Santa Fe that I realized that the Spirit wanted me to keep farming in New Mexico.”
Specifically, the Spirit moved him in 1984. “The elders of the San Juan Pueblo, an Indian community 30 miles north of Santa Fe, invited me to help them develop skills that would allow them to return to the native lands they had all but abandoned in favor of city-based U.S. government jobs. They wanted to regain their once-thriving and now fast-disappearing culture rooted in the soil.”
With the help of a financial grant, Howearth, two Indian village leaders and three young tribal apprentices grew a three-acre test plot of some 300 varieties of grains, vegetables, fruit and herb crops. The goal was selling seed.
“Part of the San Juan project involved searching for many types of old seeds that had been preserved for generations in gourds, pots, and other vessels as well as in the adobe walls of buildings and in the root cellars of traditional Indian pueblos throughout the region,” Howearth says. “Someone found some seeds of the sacred red corn of San Juan, which hadn’t been grown for 40 years,” he says, “and planting it again felt like a spiritual homecoming for me.”
Other successful crops were native strains of corn, chile peppers, black garbanzo beans, melons and squash. Howearth also reintroduced to the area two South American Andean high altitude grains, amaranth and quinoa, as well as herbs and root vegetables. “Archeological digs confirm that all of these had once been successfully grown in the Southwest United States,” Howearth says.
On the Gila Seeds of Change farm, Howearth and his colleagues are growing methodically arranged varieties of plant families that have been scientifically determined as having co-evolved over the millennia. Many of the grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes being organically grown there have also been scientifically proven by an objective, third-party evaluator at the University of Washington to contain remarkably high amounts of free amino acids, vitamins, minerals and protein. Some of the seeds Howearth has collected have never been grown on this continent.
“Gabriel has an indescribably vast knowledge of organic farming,” says George Patton, a Sun Valley vegetable farmer and landscaper who studied with the same biodynamic farming teacher, Peter Dukish, who taught Howearth. “He knows how to cultivate a huge array of the world’s plants, trees and herbs, no matter how difficult the conditions.”
“There are only a few people in the world like Gabriel who are actively preserving plant diversity,” says Andre Ulrych, a master macrobiotic chef and organic foods expert who helped Howearth buy the Gila farm in 1988. Ulrych, who founded Andre’s restaurant in Aspen, is also a co-founder of Seeds of Change, along with Ausubel and Howearth.
“Ninety-nine percent of the seeds on the market are not organic,” Ulrych observes, “and many of them are hybrids that are routinely coated with pesticides before sale. A growing number of people are avoiding eating industrial agricultural products,” he says. “Compared to organically grown produce, people can taste and feel how chemically fertilized soils and pesticide-dosed crops produce relatively non-nourishing foods,” he claims. “It’s a great idea for people to grow organic seeds, since they are the first link in a safe food chain.”
Many growers credit Howearth with planting the first seed of quinoa in this continent, in Oregon (Howearth, though, refuses to claim credit for the act). Quinoa is now widely cultivated in the Western states, and is a staple in many health food stores around the country. According to Bolivian agronomist Emigdio Ballon, a world expert on quinoa, the grain “is 14% to 23% higher in protein than wheat, corn or rice, and carries a superb balance of protein, fat, oils, minerals and amino acids. It grows from sea level to 12,000 feet elevations and is extremely drought-tolerant.”
The Peruvian purple potato--all the rage in foodie circles--is another food that Howearth helped introduce to North American climes. “Purple vegetables in general are going to become very sought after in the ‘90s,” Howearth predicts. “Purple peppers, purple basil, purple potatoes--these are delicious health foods whose time has come.”
Howearth’s unusual agricultural achievements take on a new light when considered alongside our limited and ever-shrinking diet. For instance, out of 80,000 edible plants, a mere 150 are widely cultivated, while the Gila farm has 670 plants under cultivation. Foods commonly available today represent 3% of those present in 1900. And, as ethnobotanist and recent MacArthur Fellowship recipient Gary Nabhan records, about 75% of native crop varieties in the Western Hemisphere have disappeared since the time of Columbus.
While the future of U.S. industrial agriculture may indeed be imperiled, Howearth’s seed bank is all the more significant when compared to our federal government’s National Seed Storage Laboratory’s vast collection in Fort Collins, Colo. In tests conducted over the past five years, the Associated Press found that this seed bank, the world’s largest, is wasting away from poor facility management. Only half the varieties have enough representative seed even to risk growing them out, and only 28% of samples tested met germination standards.
The Seeds of Change seeds, on the other hand, are in optimum condition since they’re being grown out on the farm and moving into the general food supply via other growers who buy them. Moreover, since so many of Howearth’s seeds are drought-tolerant and require low maintenance, they’re ideally suited for growing in the Southern Californian climate.
“Other people have careers, Gabriel has a path,” Ausubel says.
Howearth’s devotion to his gardening path, however, seems to have exacted a toll on his personal life: He no longer lives with his wife and daughter Quinoa.
“Sometimes I think Gabriel operates by photosynthesis,” Ausubel continues, “He’s so attuned to raising vital plants.” Indeed. Returning from the Gila fields with that evening’s dinner, Howearth’s bowl overflows with softball-sized beets, club-like carrots, celadon green cabbages, bushy bok choy, feathery fans of dill, ruby red nasturtium flowers and other richly-hued foods.
Howearth, a few Seeds of Change farm hands, a volunteer intern, seed manager Richard Pecoraro, and a dozen other visitors help prepare dinner. One woman arranges just-picked wildflowers in glass canning jars, as a dignified old gray cat pads across the open-plan farmhouse floor. Three men in one of the far corners of the room improvise a drum concert on congas and bongos. The house is full of laughter, impromptu dancing and focused food preparation.
Within an hour, the vegetables are cleaned, chopped and steamed; the beets are ground; the quinoa is cooked; a gala vegan feast is on the table. Wooden chopsticks are laid out alongside regular cutlery, but somehow the chopsticks feel like the appropriate utensils for this food.
The first course is a colorful salad of red leaf lettuce, Osaka purple mustard greens, magenta lamb’s quarters, mizuna (a spicy Japanese salad green), tarragon, holy basil, nasturtiums, early Spanish red garlic, Chinese cabbage, sweet ruby queen beets, grated Chantenay carrots and Japanese parsley. The garden flavors are so fresh on the tongue that salad dressing seems quite unnecessary; a spritz of lemon juice with some salt and pepper spikes up the vegetables just right.
Next comes a cornucopia of quinoa and steamed vegetables--Indian long red carrots, Welsh onions, Hickman’s snap pole beans, hot Peruvian purple peppers, gourmet-grade haricots verts, rhubarb chard (which tastes rather like asparagus), low-acid spinach and deliciously rich-red velvet okra, which holds its intense color when cooked. This is dressed with soy, ginger and garlic dressing. As his guests eat, Howearth pours a fruity organic red wine.
Dessert is a peach tart made without butter, milk, white sugar and white flour.
“By changing the way people eat,” Howearth says, “we also hope to help them live better. Food has lost much of its spiritual importance as a result of industrialization and other aspects of the modern condition.” By planting seeds of change, Howearth and his comrades believe they are helping food regain the revered role it deserves in all our lives.
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