History and Mission

History and Mission

Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is a nonprofit seed conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona. Our story began in 1983 following a profound realization. While working on a Meals for Millions project to assist the Tohono O’odham Nation with establishing gardens, NS/S co-founders Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees presented tribal elders with broccoli and radish seeds. “What we are really looking for,” the elders replied, “are the seeds for the foods our grandparents used to grow.” This revelatory remark inspired the formation of Native Seeds/SEARCH as a collector and preserver of these endangered traditional seeds.

Since its founding, Native Seeds/SEARCH has been dedicated to this calling to conserve the rich agro-biodiversity of the arid Southwest because of its genetic and cultural importance. What began as a humble operation with seeds stored in chest freezers has grown to a state-of-the art conservation facility, a host of innovative programs and educational initiatives, and an organization recognized as a leader in the heirloom seed movement. Preserved in our seed bank are nearly 2,000 varieties of aridlands-adapted seeds, many of them rare or endangered. We promote the use of these ancient crops and their wild relatives by distributing seeds to traditional communities and to gardeners worldwide. Currently we offer over 500 varieties from the NS/S collection (which we grow out at our Conservation Farm in Patagonia, Arizona) alongside native crafts, gifts, foods, and more. These one-of-a-kind seeds and items are available through our online store, annual seedlisting, and at our retail store in central Tucson.

Our founders had the keen foresight to save these irreplaceable seeds before they were lost forever. As NS/S co-founder Barney Burns points out, "If we went out today to gather the seeds in our collection, we couldn't do it. They're not there." This ongoing crop loss and reduction in genetic diversity has created a food security crisis. The resiliency of our food system depends on agricultural biodiversity, as farmers and breeders can draw on the myriad genetic combinations as raw materials to develop new varieties better adapted to an uncertain and changing environment. Climate change, water scarcity, new and more virulent crop pests and diseases — all of these troubling trends currently threatening our food security require a wide pool of genetic diversity to prevent catastrophic crop failure and famine. While continuing to preserve our collection, NS/S is working to help communities develop regional seed solutions rooted in traditional seed saving methods to strengthen their food systems.

Crop loss, in human terms, is equally severe. Traditional farmers are a stabilizing force in many Native American communities. They conserve historic seeds adapted to local conditions, keep traditional agricultural and culinary practices alive, donate crops for ceremonies and feast days, and feed extended families from their fields. We are as concerned about the loss of ecological relationships, the traditions of humans and plants evolving together, as we are about the extinction of a single species. When peoples once sustained by agriculture lose their farming traditions, their survival as a culture may also be at risk. For many Native American tribes in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, these relationships are endangered. The good news is that a tide is sweeping through Native American communities, as traditional crops and foods are again sought for their power to nourish body and soul. Native Seeds/SEARCH is grateful for the opportunity to return the seeds of grandparents to people who seek them and support the revival of these traditional practices.

To retain the irreplaceable genetic and cultural diversity held in our collection, we must ensure that the seeds remain available and accessible to the farmers and gardeners who can save them to be used again and again, and shared with others. It is only through this ongoing process that the seeds develop adaptive traits to meet environmental changes. It is also at this local level that communities can take primacy over their food supply and strengthen their resilience against environmental stresses. At Native Seeds/SEARCH, we recognize the growing need for educational opportunities that teach seed saving to advance this local approach to food security. To answer this need we have developed Seed School, a groundbreaking educational program that trains people in the history, science, and business of seeds to construct a new sustainable seed paradigm.

Through our efforts in conservation and education, we are keeping alive the agricultural legacy of the Southwest region and beyond — preserved in the precious seeds in our seed bank; growing in the fields of farmers and gardeners; and guiding the hearts and actions of inspired seed savers, sustainability advocates, and visionaries working to build a more abundant and regenerative world.

Join us in this inspiring work—become a member today!