Seed Travels Gives Insight into Agriculture

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Tompkins Weekly     7-13-2022

By Rebecca Cutter

Seed Travels is a movement that began 16 years ago when a group of Maya Achi farmers traveled from Guatemala to the Southwest to share the story of the amaranth seed.

In May, Julian Vasquez Chun, Maya Achi farmer and agroecology program coordinator for The Garden’s Edge, traveled to the Haudenosaunee Territory for a series of cultural exchanges with community organizations, farms and gardens.

The trip included visits to the Iroquois White Corn Project, Ganondagan Cultural Center, the Cayuga SHARE Farm, the Traditional Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Healing, the Onondaga Nation Farm, Quarter Acre for the People, Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming, and the Friends of Farmworkers House in Syracuse. The purpose of this first-ever Seed Travels visit was to share seed stories about plant medicines and the ancestral foods that have sustained civilizations for millennia.

Julian Vasquez Chun explains how to plant amaranth seeds; Rebecca Cutter looks on. Photo by Eric Banford.

Often what starts off as a conversation about amaranth turns into a sharing of histories, the impacts of colonization, creation stories and strategies for cultural revitalization. As the interpreter, I couldn’t help but notice several commonalities. For example, at the Onondaga Farm, we learned about Braiding the Sacred, a network of indigenous corn growers that is similar to Seed Travels but with a focus on corn instead of amaranth.

Another interesting similarity was the packaged white corn from the Iroquois White Corn Project (Seneca Nation) and the packaged amaranth from the Maya Achi “Mother Earth” Association Qachuu Aloom in Guatemala. Both organizations are working with farmers to grow these culturally important foods.

They both have processing centers where they dry, roast and grind the amaranth seeds or corn grains to prepare ready-to-cook bags of food. In both cases, the goal is the same — to protect these ancient seed varieties and the traditional farming practices while providing families with easy access to nutritious, culturally significant food. The hope is that in time, these foods will once again become a staple of their diet.

By the way, you can support this work by purchasing Iroquois White Corn in the bulk food section at the Greenstar Food Co+op in Ithaca.

For the Maya, amaranth was a venerated plant and has become, more recently, a symbol of resistance. In the 1500s, the Spanish prohibited Maya farmers from growing this sacred food that was key to their survival, and today, corporations like Monsanto are trying to colonize traditional agriculture with patents, GMO seeds and agro-chemicals.

Amaranth is also a symbol of resilience. In an article published in The New York Times on Aug. 18, 2021, H. Brown Clare reported that Palmer Amaranth, a variety common to the Southwest and historically an important food crop for native communities, has evolved resistance to Monsanto’s herbicides. My colleagues and I couldn’t help smiling as we imagined the tenacious seed reclaiming its rightful place in the endless fields of GMO crops.

At each site we visited, there was an exchange of knowledge and a strong feeling of solidarity. We shared traditional foods and agricultural practices. Vasquez Chun taught people how to plant amaranth, and in the fall, he will return with a Seed Travels delegation to teach people how to harvest, clean and cook the amaranth seeds.

Although the cultivation of this proud plant with its beautiful flower was prohibited throughout Mesoamerica during the conquista and nearly eradicated as a traditional food crop, its wild ancestors have persisted. In English, these are known pejoratively as “pigweed.”

I recall once when I was working on a farm in Guatemala, an esteemed elder named Don Antonio pointed out to me the wild, thorny ancestor of the once widely cultivated amaranth. In Spanish, it’s called “bledo,” which is also a pejorative term, as in, “me da un bledo,” meaning, “I could care less.”

Antonio told me not to weed it because at the end of the day, families that lived nearby would harvest it for dinner. And that, they did. Despite tremendous adversity, amaranth never disappeared; she is one of the most resilient seeds on Earth, and today, people from all continents enjoy growing and eating her leaves and her seeds!

As the effects of climate change, the rising cost of fuel and market destabilization become more noticeable, might we grow wise to the traditional plant knowledge of the Maya who grow amaranth to survive? Foods high in nutritional value and capable of withstanding harsh weather conditions will become essential to our food security.

In Guatemala, where 50% of children 5 and under suffer from chronic malnutrition, the resurgence of amaranth is making a difference. In the Maya Achi region, where Vasquez Chun is from, our partner organization, Qachuu Aloom, purchases 3,000 pounds of amaranth seeds from its members each year.

In their processing plant, they prepare flour, cereal and cookies. One cup of cooked amaranth has 251 calories, 9.4 grams of protein, 3.9 grams of fat, 46 grams of carbohydrates and 5.2 grams fiber. It’s also an excellent source of manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, and it’s rich in zinc, vitamins B6 and B5 and folate.

The red amaranth seed that Vasquez Chun brought from Guatemala germinates in five days and will grow to a height between 4 feet and 5 feet, with a surprisingly large flower head that’s about 2 feet wide and 3 feet tall.

From two to four weeks, the tender sprigs are harvested while thinned and eaten raw in salad. From four to six weeks, you can continue thinning the less-vigorous plants and saute or steam the leaves to eat with eggs, in soup or stir fry. After approximately 40 days, the leaves become bitter and the flower head begins to form.

Amaranth seeds take about three-and-a-half months to fully mature. If grown in the right conditions, it’s a perennial. It’s best to plant at the end of May or early June. Julian said, “Watch the birds — they are your best indicator of when the seeds are ready for harvest.”

To learn how to harvest amaranth seeds and how to clean and cook them, go to our website, and join our mailing list. We’ll invite you to our Seed Travels event this fall, when our partners from Guatemala return for the harvest.

Here’s a fun challenge for us all — growing native and climate adapted seeds, strengthening our local food systems and supporting small farms should be high on our list of priorities for building climate resilience.

This growing season, commit to learning the seed story of a few of your favorite foods, medicinal plants or pollinator plants. Practice growing them, selecting seeds and cleaning them to share with friends and neighbors. We may never become completely self-reliant, but seed saving is an important step toward creating more independence from the food industry and their shipments of grocery store produce and products.

It’s also a great way to experience the full life-cycle of plants, and sharing your seeds and their story is a wonderful way to build community.

Rebecca Cutter has a master’s in sustainable development and has been working in solidarity with traditional farmers from Guatemala since 1996. She’s a co-founder of the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute and currently lives in Ithaca and works as a nonprofit consultant with Garden’s Edge.

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