This project seeks to incorporate four sustainable practices in southwest Colorado:
1. Restore and appropriately use mismanaged floodplain land with sustainable gardening and farming practices
2. Help grow out endangered heirloom crops to conserve genetic diversity and viability
3. Help spread the word to the public and gardeners about heirloom and native foods
4. Create a local market niche for native and heirloom foods
Regional heirloom vegetable and fruit varieties can adapt to drought, heat and pests, meaning they use less water and provide an option for low-impact gardening. Project coordinator Martha Ames Burgess is using endangered Native American and pioneer heirloom food crops and organic methods to restore an overgrazed floodplain to healthy farmland. She harvested the crops to sell at farmers markets and to save the seed of endangered heirloom plants.
Two seasons have produced enough multiplied seed to conserve some rare varieties close to extinction and to offer seed to the public via the Native Seeds/SEARCH catalog. Burgess cultivated other heirloom summer vegetables to sell at farmers markets, where she found an ideal atmosphere for exchanging gardening information and relating the importance of open pollination, seed-saving, the conservation work of Native Seeds/SEARCH, native horticultural knowledge and the nutritional value and appropriate adaptations of heirlooms.
During 2000, acceptable levels of seed were produced from a dozen native or pioneer cultivars, with some producing minimal amounts and others plentiful amounts. A handful failed.
In 2001, of 13 tested (some from the previous year) only two failed to produce any seed. From two years of tests, she recommends 14 varieties for her region in southwestern Colorado, including Calabaza Temporal, Navajo cushaw squash, Mrs. Burns lemon basil, Cocopah white tepary, Hopi light yellow bean, Yaqui string bean, Tohono O’odham watermelon, San Juan watermelon, Santo Domingo striped gourd, Hope blue speckled corn, Paiute red amaranth, Pima multiclaw devilsclaw, Aztec white runner bean and Tohono O’odham black and white cow pea. In addition to the Native Seeds/SEARCH varieties tested, four other heirlooms proved successful: burgundy okra, Early Fortune cucumber, Table Queen acorn squash and Swain Family heirloom dill.
Despite great consumer interest, paltry sales failed to pay even the cost of transporting the heirlooms to market. Burgess found it necessary to piggyback her artwork and native crafts and herbs to supplement market income.
In developing the garden site, Burgess restored 3 acres of mismanaged floodplain. She removed tamarisk, improved soil with compost, increased diversity and provided off-season forage for wildlife. She’s still wrestling with Russian knapweed but has planted a diversity of plants to compete with it. Developing the sustainable garden has improved the soil on Burgess’s 115-acre ranch because of avoidance of chemical pesticides and fertilizers on the garden plot. In addition, 40 acres of adjacent ranch land have been set aside as an unfarmed reserve for elk, deer, beaver and the occasional bear to find food and refuge. Burgess is also planning and preparing two orchard areas and hedgerows that will serve as windbreaks and additional wildlife forage and habitat.
The impacts from this project include increasing consumer recognition of heirloom varieties, exposing them to the heirlooms’ unusual colors and forms and educating them about their nutritional values. What’s more, the project raised the consciousness of consumers about the value of sustaining healthy land and decreasing the costs of transporting food to market.
“Consumer knowledge will guide how they vote with their food dollars,” says project coordinator Burgess.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
Burgess says her garden and outreach have led farmers in Naturita, Colo., a rural farm and ranch community, to create a local farmers market where growers can share ideas.
Neighboring ranchers and landowners have complied with her requests to restrict crop treatments within 1 mile of the organically certified garden and orchards. At least 120 acres of cultivated alfalfa, mixed pasture and natural pasture adjacent to the Burgess land are being treated using organic standards. The project also helped to encourage a neighboring rancher, who had decided to try growing his beef as natural and is working on organic certification of his feed operation.
At the Ridgeway, Colo., farmers market, a bean farmer from Delta, Colo., attracted by the array of colorful heirloom beans, went away with a pound of seed and a goal to increase the seed. In addition, three ranchers have shared with Burgess their own family heirloom seed – a tall, old alfalfa, a dill and a bean called the “friendship bean.”
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
As her garden project blooms, Burgess sees the need for more volunteer or grant-funded labor to help with the heavy work. She says group effort, especially with dedicated interns who might work for board, room and experience, inspires synergy and the sharing of ideas to solve problems.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Outreach embraced a variety of information venues, including 1) hands-on and plant song programs at local charter schools, 2) seed-saving demonstrations from sliced-open squash at farmers markets, 3) craft workshops using materials from the garden and 4) food preparation and canning workshops.
“A major success of this project lies in the outreach to hundreds of people who are now eating, benefiting from and will soon grow their own heirlooms,” says Burgess.
She estimates having discussions with 1,100 interested consumers during 26 farmers markets over two seasons in Moab and Blanding, Utah, and Naturita and Ridgeway, Colo. Another 600 people were reached in Tucson at 12 farmers markets and two workshops during the winter of 2000-01.
In addition to the main sustainable garden of heirloom varieties, adjacent ranchers were influenced by the concepts of sustainable gardening and agriculture.