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Mancos seed drive echoes WWII Victory Gardens

Farms, organizations operate drive to encourage sustainability

Self-sufficiency and sustainability are rules to live by, but in times of crisis and strained resources, they grow imperative.

And to encourage budding gardeners to take root around Mancos, some local farms and groups are collecting seeds, to be distributed in early May. Kellie Pettyjohn, one of the seed drive’s organizers, said that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic seems like an opportune time to encourage people to begin garden plots.

“I think a lot of people are thinking about how they can become more self-sufficient,” said Pettyjohn, who runs the Wily Carrot farm in Mancos.

This prompted Pettyjohn to consider sharing seeds.

“I knew that I had a bunch of extra seed from the last year or two that I wasn’t using,” she said. “So it started out with me just saying, ‘Hey, does anybody want some extra seed to go and garden with this year?’”

Others jumped onboard to offer seeds and facilitate the drive. Midge Kirk of the Mancos Public Library donated their entire seed library to the effort. Back in 2011, Kirk began the seed-lending library, which allows users to borrow non-GMO, organic and heritage seeds to plant, enjoy and then return after letting the plant go to seed.

Kirk said she decided to donate the seeds after realizing this would be a “strange spring,” with little opportunity for locals to drop by the Mancos Public Library and borrow seeds in a timely manner. The collection is now at the Sharehouse in Cortez.

“Some are pretty old, but I did a germination test, and they passed,” Kirk said.

Kirk said she would like to see the revival of Victory Gardens, planted by U.S. households in World War I and World War II to save resources and support the war effort.

“Grow when you can,” Kirk said. “Even if you just grow lettuce, let’s say, in a container, sprout, do microgreens, and supplement your diet in a safe, inexpensive and healthy way. It makes so much sense. If you have a plot of land, be grateful, tend it, plant it and work it.”

Along with the Wily Carrot, other local farms that have either donated or pledged seed donations include Banga’s Farm, Confluence Farm, Kestrel Farm, Mountain Roots Produce and Laughing Wolf Farm.

Over at Laughing Wolf Farm, Lee-Ann Hill is another leader of the seed drive. She also works for the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance and sees seeds as a connection to the past, as holding “memories” hearkening back to the Anasazi civilization.

In her words, she’s a “seed junkie.” And a strong proponent of seed-saving.

“When we save seeds out of our own garden, we are adapting them to our own practices and our own soils and habitat of our own gardens. We have very specific microclimates in each of our farms and yards,” Hill said. “So that’s a real benefit. And we’re also participating in a really ancient tradition of saving seeds and growing our own food.”

Last year, a late June freeze wreaked havoc on plants throughout the Mancos Valley, but some of Hill’s heartier varieties survived.

“When you see that some plants survive a freeze, those are the ones you’re going to want to keep the seed from and continue to regenerate that seed,” she said.

Hill’s been helping Pettyjohn on the collection end, gathering seeds to be distributed. While she’s a lover of many seeds and vegetables like squash and corn, she encourages locals to grow beans and grains.

“The beans have a very ancient lineage here with the people of the Southwest that have lived here for a millennia,” Hill said. “And they have been the true stewards of these seeds, and I’ve just been honored to carry on the tradition of growing them here.”

On the distribution end, the growers have partnered with the Mancos FoodShare and the Sharehouse in Cortez, which aim to increase access to healthy and local food. Mancos FoodShare offers gardening and nutrition classes and has a community garden to share, along with running a food pantry.

“Without having to essentially close our classes, we still wanted to offer people seeds and plants and education,” said Stephanie Marquez, a co-director of the Mancos FoodShare.

They will be putting together boxes of seeds, or even boxes people can use as a garden space, and they are looking to offer online video tutorials with local farmers discussing some of the common problems of growing plants in this area.

Without knowing how long the coronavirus pandemic will last, being able to access local produce grows increasingly important, Marquez said.

“A lot of our produce isn’t even grown in America,” she said. “It’s shipped. If this virus keeps going, we might not see a lot of fresh vegetables in the time we’re used to, across even the country.”

At the Mancos FoodShare, they’ve only seen a slight increase in use of the pantry so far, Marquez said, but they expect more as recently unemployed residents begin to empty out their cupboards. Now more people are also picking up food for multiple others, as a way to comply with social distancing regulations.

“We’re lucky to live in a small community, and people are willing to help,” Marquez said.

In addition to promoting self-sufficiency and locally grown food, the drive’s organizers hope to offer an outdoor outlet for community members cooped up because of social distancing measures.

“I think just getting outside and getting in the dirt and knowing that you’re doing something positive and being productive is such a huge boost for your mental health,” Pettyjohn said.

There’s a positive communal aspect to it too, she added, whether it be sharing homegrown produce with a neighbor or asking for help from a more knowledgeable farmer. The organizers hope to create a Facebook page with information on various growing-related topics, and a space for community members to ask questions.

And at some point, the group may recruit volunteers to help people set up their own garden plots.

For now, seed collection will happen through April 15, after which organizers will sort and later distribute the seeds, likely at the Mount Lookout Grange and at the Sharehouse. Those who would like to donate seeds can contact Pettyjohn at kelliepj@gmail.com.