GILA, New Mexico — Master gardener Gabriel Howearth is walking the fields on a farm here called Seeds of Change. A summer thunderstorm has just cooled the earth, the sun is shining, and the air is perfumed with scent of chocolate daisies, purple basil, and acres of glistening, organically grown vegetables.
Sunlight gleams in Howearth's brownish-blonde dreadlocks as he bends down to tend an exotic-looking bean plant.
"These are Tarahumara garbanzo beans," Howearth says, splitting open a round pod of two dark brown peas. "They're drought-tolerant, extremely rich-tasting and they have a good nutritional balance of amino acids, vitamins and minerals." Brushing off his dirt-covered hands, he adds, "I got the seeds when I was farming with some Tarahumara Indians in Northern Mexico." Howearth, whose grandmother was part Tarahumara, says he feels a spiritual bond with this and the nearly 700 other rare varieties of native cultivars that he is growing at the remarkably diverse Seeds of Change farm.
Located in the last southern fling of the Rocky mountains, two hours' drive from the Mexican border, the Gila farm may sound like a hippie, back-to-the-land paradise, but it's actually the living laboratory of Seeds of Change, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based company specializing in the blossoming field of ecologically sustainable agriculture.
"We set up Seeds of Change to address the problem of organic seed availability and to grow a commercial supply of Gabriel Howearth's seed bank," says Kenny Ausubel, a journalist and filmmaker who is the company's executive director. "We want to introduce diverse seeds back into the food chain to help strengthen our food supply and most important, promote biological diversity."
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, biological diversity, or biodiversity, is of urgent concern among those in environmental and organic farming circles. Biodiversity is also shaping up into one of the hottest buzzwords of the '90s: Human encroachment, industrial agriculture and pollution are helping speed the extinction of various living things, and irreplaceable biologically diverse genetic material is disappearing daily. "No one knows how many plant species are disappearing each day," Howearth says, "but for every plant that vanishes, so will the 20 to 40 animal species which rely on it."
Accordingly, Howearth and his comrades in Seeds of Change have turned their farm into a thriving center of planetary diversity. "This region is an overlap of the Atlantic, Rockies and Madrean regions," Howearth explains, "and these conditions give us the potential to grow one third of the world's flora varieties on this farm with collections of plants that grow in similar ecologies worldwide." The 120-acre Gila farm boasts a 250-day growing season, has never been chemically farmed and borders on 3 million acres of national forest, half of which is designated wilderness without roads.
"We're specializing in growing hardy, high-nutrition foods that are drought-tolerant and require very low maintenance," says Howearth. "Our goal is to get all kinds of people, even those who work and have limited leisure time, to grow their own food--in their back yards, on their balconies, or on their rooftops."
With his tautly muscled frame, celestial blue eyes, sandy brown beard and languid manner, Howearth (his real name) by turns resembles a distracted monk and a displaced Southern California surfer. In fact, he grew up in Northern San Diego and Orange Counties, and spent a lot of time on a surfboard. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in architectural landscaping.
"I started my first garden when I was 18 at Fullerton," says Howearth, who is now 36. "I was interested in diversity even then. I planted vegetables, flowers and culinary herbs. And I always farmed organically."
Howearth stepped up his growing schedule at Santa Cruz, where he apprenticed with Alan Chadwick, a horticulturist and disciple of the Austrian philosopher and clairvoyant, Rudolph Steiner, who founded Bio-Dynamic Agriculture. Chadwick had set up a model garden on campus based on the French Intensive method; it was an interpretation of Bio-Dynamics.
Later Howearth trained with Peter Dukish, another "Steinerian" who was developing a major community garden and tree-planting project in Los Angeles. "Where Chadwick emphasized the more practical aspects of Steiner's philosophy of growing healthy plants, Dukish focused on developing sensitivity and what I call the 'spiritual' sides of the question, namely, the interactions, if they will let them happen harmoniously, between people and nature." It was around this time that Howearth acquired the nickname, "Farmer Gabriel."