by Nicole Wines
A JOURNEY TO SUPPORTING A SUSTAINABLE AND JUST RECOVERY
It wasn’t long after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico that our own community in Central NJ sprang into action to be a part of the relief effort. Concerts, fundraisers, supply drives, info booths at the local farmer’s market. As happens after many moments of devastation, people scrambled to do what they could to help, in any way they could, as quick ly as possible. But at the first benefit concert Raíces took part in, my heart started to sink as I watched well meaning community members walk in with cases of bottled water, boxes of plastic utensils, stacks of paper plates and countless products made from or wrapped in plastic and sometimes both. The intent was good, and the concert was wonderful, showcasing diverse musicians and cultural traditions, and raising over $3,500 in donations for grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico, Dominica and Mexico. And even if the idea of all that plastic didn’t sit right with me, many of these items had useful applications. Even with a lack of widespread understanding and awareness about sustainable and ecological alternatives, some of these supplies were in fact necessary and life saving at times.
We decided that moving forward Raíces would begin to work within our community to change the way we respond to natural disasters. We would promote and support sustainable solutions, guided by the experiences and knowledge of those grassroots organizations on the island working to rebuild in a sustainable, renewable, regenerative and just way. When we asked what they needed, they requested a different type of aid. They were distributing water filters and purification systems instead of water bottles, solar lamps instead of flashlights and batteries, solar chargers for phones, cisterns for rainwater catchment on farms, solar energy equipment and SEEDS! They needed these supplies, as well as help fundraising for agroecology and solar energy projects.
We made plans to go to the island, visit and document these projects, and do what we could to lend a helping hand while we were there. We started to ask what was needed, what was small enough for us to carry that would be a help to their efforts. Everyone had at least one special request – organic teas because most people drink coffee on the island and teas were hard to come by after the storm, natural soaps and dried herbs for cooking and home remedies, and mango pickle – but the common item that almost every friend and group we spoke with asked for was so simple…SEEDS! Puerto Rico needed good, clean, open pollinated, non-GMO seeds.
We set to work sending out requests to companies listed as signers of the Safe Seed Pledge, and the response was overwhelming. Almost every day we would hear from another company that let us know that seeds were on their way. Even the rejection responses brought hope, as they usually stated that they had already donated all or most of their overstock for the year to grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico – often to the very organizations that we were going to be visiting, supporting and collaborating with.
Why seed? Well, seed is life. Seed represents the future. When each seed sprouts on a farm or at a school or home or community garden, it adds to the regeneration of life on the island. With seeds comes food freedom. And by requesting and sharing only Safe Seed Pledge produced, open-pollinated seeds, we were able to ensure that the seeds grown could be saved and grown in the future. Saved seed adapts to the growing conditions of the climate and the land, ensuring food stability and added biodiversity as new varieties adapt and evolve on the island. With locally produced seed, growers won’t have to bring in a new shipment every year, helping to build seed sovereignty and support for local economies and food systems.
OUR SEED ANGELS
In the end, we collected almost 50 pounds of seed thanks to the generous donations of these seed companies:
- Hudson Valley Seed Company
- High Mowing Organic Seeds
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Dirt Goddess Seeds
- John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds
- The Good Seed Company
- Companion Plants
- Pepper Joe’s
- Renee’s Garden
We cannot thank these companies enough for their generosity in sharing their clean, safe seed with our family, friends and collaborators in Puerto Rico. You, along with countless other seed companies which have given to Puerto Rico, have had a huge impact for farmers, seed savers, growers and students across the island. What we were able to carry and distribute was only a drop in the bucket, but the seed has now been spread far and wide, and under the care of some very special and knowledgeable seed savers, it will continue to have an impact on the local food systems on the island of Puerto Rico for generations to come.
SPREADING SEEDS, GROWING ROOTS
Over the course of the week we made quite a few stops, both planned and impromptu, and were able to share seeds and exchange stories and information with people met along the way.
January 13, 2018
On our first full day in Puerto Rico, after making a few small repairs on the home where we were staying in Toa Alta, we decided to head back past San Juan and through Loíza, on our way to Carolina and El Yunque. As we drove through Loíza, we decided to stop at the house of the Hermanos Ayala, a family working to preserve culture, music and traditions in their community. Their artisan shop had been destroyed in the storm (and is currently almost finished being rebuilt!); and the house had a blue tarp for a roof, like so many others throughout the island. We made a quick phone call to our friend Marco Ayala Lind, and he arrived at the house within five minutes, ready to talk and share his experiences during and after the storm. It was a quick meeting, but it ended with us learning that Marcos did have a garden and could use some of the seed we had brought with us to share. We were happy to learn that we had something else in common with Marco, besides our love for music, dance and cultural traditions of Puerto Rico.
January 14, 2018
The next day we were on our way down from Adjuntas after an initial visit to Casa Pueblo and as we were driving we saw a grouping of collapsed greenhouses, just a few among many we had seen in our two days on the island. The damage to the structure itself showed the power of the winds that had swept through with the storm. We stopped to take a quick photo and as we did a car came up the driveway. It was lucky timing that we got to meet Olga Perez, the wife of the agronomist whose greenhouse we had just snapped a photo of, who informed us that her husband was a seed saver.
Olga was happy to take some heirloom seeds for her husband to start in a greenhouse he had already rebuilt on another part of their property. She was enthusiastic about the seed that had been given to us to share, because she knew her husband was looking for open pollinated and heirloom seed to grow out for seed saving. She said he would multiply the stock of the seed varieties as well as adapt them to local growing conditions, and would share the seeds he saved with other growers in their community.
January 15, 2018
Camuy & Isabela
On our third day on the island, we set out to spend the morning with Don Luis Soto of Finca Mi Casa. We had visited him to learn about and document his work in 2016, and were eager to see him and his farm, and ask what we could do to lend a helping hand while we were there. Don Luis is a seed saving and organic farming legend on the island. In fact, we at Raíces call him Puerto Rico’s Seed Guru. After a quick tour of his farm to show us what had changed since the last time we had been with him and what effects the storm had on the farm, we took some time to have him choose which seed varieties he wanted.
We were so happy to see his face light up as he recognized the names of good seed companies. We learned from sorting through the box with him that his favorite seed company is Baker Creek and his favorite plant is any kind of cosmos flower. After he chose his seeds, we got to work planting some of the beans he had chosen. Within days of returning home, we were already receiving photos from our new friend, Sefra Alexandra, The Seed Huntress, who was on a visit with Don Luis, of the beans already sprouting and growing.
After we left Don Luis, we headed to Jobos Beach in Isabela to meet our friend Kari, who we had first met in 2013 when she was working at Plenitud Eco-Iniciativas. We spent hours talking about life on the island, before and after María, and new possibilities for sustainable, regenerative and just recovery. Kari has a home garden in Aguada, on the west coast of the island, and is friends with many other gardeners and growers who run agroecology projects in the area. Before we left, with an agreement to meet again soon, Kari chose some seeds for her garden as well as some seed packets to share with friends, family and neighbors.
January 16 & 17, 2018
After witnessing history at Casa Pueblo in the morning, we headed to Las Marías to spend some time with our friends at Plenitud PR and take them their seed order from Baker Creek. The donation we received from Baker Creek was unique, in that they granted us a $100 order from their catalogue, allowing us to pick out specific varieties of seeds that our friends were looking for. Paula, a co-founder of Plenitud, had sent us a list of the types of greens, herbs and pollinator flowers they were looking to grow in their greenhouse and around their permaculture farm and ecological learning center. Thanks to the support of the Juntos Together Coalition, which Raíces is a member of and works with to advocate for support of sustainability oriented organizations and relief work, the greenhouse had been reconstructed and repaired before we arrived. All of the greens we ate while we were there came from that greenhouse, and we were happy to learn that the next round of greens that would be planted there would include some of the varieties we brought from Baker Creek.
January 18, 2018
Puerta de Tierra, San Juan
Our seed experience from the day spent on the PR Resiliency Fund‘s Seed Brigade really requires a whole separate posting. Throughout the day more than two dozen volunteers from the local community and around the world came together to work on sorting donations of seed that had been coming into the PR Resiliency Fund from a variety of donations. This was our last seed stop of the week and it was where we left hundreds of varieties of seed packets from every seed company and individual seed saver that had donated seed for us to distribute. The day was non-stop seed. Thousands of packets were organized, sorted, catalogued, created from bulk donations split into coin envelopes by volunteers. These seeds would go to hundreds of growers throughout the island, from community gardeners to sustainable farmers and agroecology practitioners, from school gardens to home gardens, always with the intent to educate on seed saving and keep the Semiteca concept alive. Three main seed banks will be stored in three different locations on the island, with over 50 schools receiving the donation of a mini-semiteca and working with team members from the PR Resiliency Fund to learn about seed saving, gardening, food production and ecology.
One of the most memorable things that happened at the PR Resiliency Fund’s Seed Brigade was the creation of the mini-semitecas for the schools. Public schools on the island have been facing a crisis for years, and the aftermath of Hurricane María has only made it worse. A recent development, not long before we went to the island, was the removal of all arts and music education from the schools due to lack of resources. Thanks to the generous donation of the Hudson Valley Seed Company of hundreds of art packs, the semitecas headed to the schools would contain art lessons infused in their seed box. The educational programs that the Resiliency Fund will offer at the participating schools and the support materials will include the arts in relation to seeds and farming, building bridges across different aspects of culture and helping to fill multiple gaps for a more sustainable and just future.
Our work with seed on the island of Puerto Rico is far from over. We continue to collect seeds and accept donation of seeds and of funds to purchase seeds to bring to our seed saving friends and collaborators to increase the biodiversity of the seed stock available. And as we begin to formulate more solid plans to head to the island in hopes of preserving and conserving some land and working in network with our friends and collaborators in the sustainability and agroecology movements, the seed will continue to be given a huge importance in our work. Seed is life, and it is up to us to protect and share it, to preserve it, in order to ensure a sustainable and just future.
“Seed is the first link on the food chain. Saving seeds is our duty, sharing seeds is our culture.” ~Vandana Shiva
NOTE: I have to give a shout out to two additional seed companies we contacted. Johnny’s Seeds wrote us back and let us know that they had already sent 300 pounds of seed in one bulk donation directly to the PR Resiliency Fund, which is one of the organizations we are working in network with. Ed Hume Seeds almost immediately put a pallet together of seed and is working to get a half a ton of seeds to the island, and hopefully to our friends at the PR Resiliency Fund. These have been, and will be spread throughout the island on sustainable farms, agroecology projects, school gardens, community gardens and homestead projects.
Want to help us continue these relief support efforts? Make a donation to our PR Sustainable Relief Fund and SHARE the fundraiser page to help us spread the word.