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  • Leila Rezvani

Growing Community: The Iraqi Seed Collective

By Leila Rezvani


The Collective Harvesting Basil Seed

In 2020, motivated by their desire to deepen a connection with their ancestral land and protect its crops from extinction, a group of people in the Iraqi diaspora formed the Iraqi Seed Collective. Two founding members connected through an online cooking class by Awafi Kitchen, an Iraqi Jewish restaurant pop-up founded by Annabel. “I had always been interested in seed saving but had never connected it with identity and my practices, and as the connection became clearer, I reached out to Annabel. It was a way to tie together two important things to my life, grow and expand them, and be in community with other people doing them,” says Ali Ruxin, one of the founding members of the Seed Collective. 


In 2021, Collective founders connected with Ali Hamad, who had just returned from a trip to Iraq, recognized the grim future facing many farms there and brought back seeds. These seeds formed the basis of the over 15 crops and varieties we now grow and share. The SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa, an alternative to the Western-centric and colonial term “Middle East”) region represents the birthplace of settled agriculture, the domestication center for many of our most cherished crops, from wheat to dates to lentils. The region holds rich traditions of pastoralism, mixed fruit and nut orcharding, and an ancient system of underground canals (called qanat in Iran, karez in Afghanistan, and foggara in Algeria, among many other regional names) designed to transport water long distances without evaporation loss. During the Islamic Golden Age (from the 8th to the 13th century), farmers elaborated extensive agronomic and horticultural knowledge, bred and improved plants and developed the waterwheel, supporting a region rich in water, fertile soil, a growing population and burgeoning urban centers. Much of this knowledge and plant material diffused west into Spain and Europe, with Islamic scholars documenting the practices of the time. The history of imperial violence, border-making and territory grabbing is too extensive to detail here, but the past several decades have not been an easy time in our homelands. 


In 2003, Iraq’s central seed bank in Abu Ghraib was destroyed in a U.S. bombing raid. Many of the ancient varieties it held have gone extinct - a tremendous loss for the region's biodiversity. The 20-year conflict in Afghanistan has rendered the economy incredibly unstable, with prices for crops plummeting and farmers unable to make ends meet. Farmers in the region suffered from bombing raids, drone strikes, and landmines (and soil contamination from their remnants). US Army vehicles also destroyed countless fields, avoiding landmines and IEDs. Without a stable government following these conflicts, private retailers have replaced state agricultural agents. With so few options, farmers turn to these private industry agents for advice and are offered chemicals and patented seed (from Western corporations) as solutions.  


This destruction and erasure of the means of subsistence for so many Iraqi farmers is a technique of warfare, not a byproduct. Climate change will bring decreased rainfall, increased temperatures and water shortages to the region. In Iran, tens of thousands of people have become internally displaced due to water scarcity, exacerbated by the shift toward water-intensive crops, dam construction, the diversion of water to industry and government inaction on climate change. If current climate trends continue, as many as 50 million Iranians might be forced to leave the country to survive. 


In the face of this devastation, we organize around seeds as a symbol of resilience, resistance and hope. The Collective has grown from a few founding members to 20 or so home gardeners and small-scale growers across the US and Canada. Most members were drawn to the group out of a desire for community and a longing for the foods of their past; “I have a support group now, I extended my tradition and shared it with the group instead of it being isolated at home. I feel lucky that I can now talk to my people in the group about lubia [green beans], bamia [okra], rishad [cress], batikh [watermelon]... and I share those stories with my daughters, so they know our strong tradition.  Even though we don’t see these traditions [where we live] in Los Angeles, they exist. They have a past, a present and a future,” says member Rivka. Members range in skill level from brand-new to experienced growers, from backgrounds as diverse as Information Technology, visual art, paleobotany, and teaching to regions as climatically diverse as southern California and the Northeast. Group members take on roles as our skills, interests and capacities dictate. Many members grow seed; others answer emails, share their research on the history of plant use in the region, collect accessions from government seed banks, or provide the logistical support of a developed non-profit. “I’m so grateful to be in a Collective doing this because people step into different roles. As one of our members says, “It’s so special to be in a group where we can be part of real collective work as capacity allows, and other people can step in and out and fill those roles.” 


We are constantly adding new crops to our roster. This year, Nate from Experimental Farm Network (EFN) found a short, stubby bamia (okra) that many Collective members recognized with love but had never been able to source seed for. “We always got it frozen from the Indian grocery store, or my mom would pick through and find the smallest ones when it was in season. So when Nate observed a surprising variation in the okra he was growing, he contacted me and said, ‘Hey, I think this is mature, but it’s so short, is that right?’ it was such an exciting moment because that’s exactly how many of us remember it,” says a collective member.  We also look forward to growing a partnership with The Seed Farm at Princeton University. A handful of our crops are already being grown at their 3-acre plot in New Jersey, tended by student volunteers. We share this space with other community partners, the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance, BIPOC seedkeepers based mostly in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Ramapough Lenape Nation. We’re hopeful these partnerships grow into a more formal, involved relationship, including hosting workshops and gatherings where members live, grow more seed, and do research as the Collective gets more organized.  Many of us also dream of more trips back to Iran, Iraq and our other home places. For some, these trips are all but impossible, politically, logistically, or financially – or they might simply be too painful. The devastating and ever-deepening conflict in the region threatens our shared agricultural heritage and our future connections to places that hold a deep sense of familiarity, a mix of love, longing, hope and grief. 


Although the Collective began with a focus on Iraqi seeds and cultural heritage, we welcome anyone with a direct familial connection to SWANA/Mesopotamia/the Fertile Crescent. We recognize colonial violence constructed contemporary borders that artificially divided groups with shared ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious, culinary, and ecological origins and practices. We chose to keep the word Iraqi in our Collective’s name because the founding members wanted to broaden the country’s representation beyond war and violence, drawing attention to its rich history, culinary & agricultural traditions and culture. All members can grow out seeds, participate in meetings and take on leadership roles in the Collective. Folks without a direct familial connection to the region are also invited to join, participate, learn and grow seed for us, respectfully recognizing that the space is centered on and created for those with SWANA ancestry. 


Because we are so geographically spread out, our seed library is more like a decentralized network with many nodes.  Our process for sharing seeds begins in the early spring when we send a seed request form to the broader Collective listserv. Members respond to which crops they want to grow in the coming season. Collective members with the seed from those varieties are linked with interested growers and send them seed directly. Although small-scale growers are not obligated or expected to send seed to the Collective, we encourage new growers to experiment with seed saving and offer support from more experienced growers in the Collective. We share updates on our crops’ progress throughout the season, sending garden pictures, vegetable glamor shots, and recipes to our WhatsApp group. We also use this space to ask each other questions and provide resources on seed growing, harvesting, processing, and articles on regional history and current events. 


Although our decentralized structure has challenges, it is also an incredible resource and provides resilience - the more varied conditions our crops are grown under, the more they adapt to bioregional climates and conditions, and the better chance they have to survive the shifts of climate change that impact seed growers across the world. Our members are excited about creating a database that tracks this bioregional adaptation and keeps records of the performance of our crops across different years and regions, with input from the growers in our network. For inspiration on this initiative and methodology, we look to more mature seed collectives like Second Generation Seeds, a group of growers mostly in California who “tend to the kinship between the Asian and Southwest Asian/North African (SWANA) diasporas and the plants who have evolved alongside us” and operate a decentralized network in their region. 


While most of our seed circulates within our Collective, we also send some to Truelove Seeds, a seed company and farm based in Philadelphia (see the interview with Truelove’s founder on page xx in this issue) that contracts with small growers who keep culturally significant, open-pollinated crops and varieties. The EFN, a seed company and nonprofit in New Jersey, focused on collaborative plant breeding, developing new crops and preserving old ones to shift our growing practices toward regenerative and sustainable agriculture. These seed companies use a profit-sharing model for payment, where the grower gets a percentage of seed sales for a given crop. This payment is much more lucrative for seed growers than a bulk payment by weight, which most seed companies use. 


As our Collective grows quickly and takes shape, we spend our monthly meetings working out roles and responsibilities, discussing what direction we want our work to take and what we imagine for the future. It is painstaking work and sometimes difficult, especially for those who just want to be in our gardens. Still, collective visioning and decision-making are also exciting and generative, and so are building the relationships that sustain our ability to work together in the long term. Moving forward, we aim to expand our network of growers to include larger-scale, experienced seed farmers, recognizing that they have the capacity to grow out larger crop populations and thus maintain the genetic diversity, health and adaptability of our beloved varieties. We imagine aggregating seed with regional point people who mail seed; we might streamline our processes. 


On October 6, a group of collective members met at Truelove Seeds, to connect and deepen our technical seed-saving skills. The day before the current war between Israel and Palestine broke out, we were processing seed from Palestinian Kusa squash seed, sorting seed from pulp, discussing the diasporic community and recovering culture through seed. The explosion of genocidal violence in Palestine has laid bare the lengths that colonial powers will go to secure their hegemony and resource access in the region. Entire lineages of people and seeds, along with their embodied and land-based knowledge, are being wiped out.  Our fates are tied to this struggle, and seedkeeping represents one small but essential piece of the fight. Seeds are a universal symbol of hope: as Ali put it, “I find seeds are very hopeful because you can grow them out, and that multiplies them. It feels very hopeful, especially when you’re sharing and creating a larger network to grow and multiply them.I try to hold on to that.” 


Harvesting Kusa Seed at TrueLove Seeds
Harvesting Kusa Seed at TrueLove Seeds

If you want to learn more about the Collective, please email iraqiseedcollective@gmail.com.


Aligned organizations: 


Leila Rezvani co-owns Keshtyar Seed, a small-scale seed farm in Chesterfield, MA. 

They can be reached at leilaerezvani@gmail.com.



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