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Seeding the future with hope

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Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley: Rhianna Simes

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about women gardeners in the Rogue Valley.

Photo by Rhonda Nowak Rhianna Simes has been an advocate for community seed exchanges and seed saving for many years. She’s built a seed library at Verdant Phoenix, her urban mini farm and educational center.
Photo courtesy of Cultivate Oregon Rhianna organized the Sowing Seeds of Hope seed swap in September, which provided seeds to people who lost their homes and/or landscapes in the Almeda fire. The event included making seed balls and throwing them into burn areas to regreen the earth.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Rhianna grows some exotic plants, including this tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Tea tree oil is known for its medicinal properties.
Photo by Rhonda Nowak Rhianna grows several perennial herbs in her greenhouse, including a brightly colored pineapple sage (Salvia elegans).

“We must set ourselves to the task of revitalizing the earth. Regreening the earth, sowing seeds in the desert — that is the path society must follow.”

— Masanobu Fukuoka, “The One-Straw Revolution,” 1978

Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) was a Japanese farmer, philosopher and author who developed and taught natural farming methods. One of his techniques was the ancient practice of making seed balls, in which different kinds of seeds are mixed together, rolled into clay, and then dispersed onto the ground. Nature takes over from there, and the result is a garden or field filled with diverse plants that support wildlife and humans.

Inspired by Fukuoka’s teachings, Phoenix resident Rhianna Simes decided seed balls were an ideal way to help regreen some of the scorched earth in her hometown left by the devastating Almeda fire that occurred in September 2020. A year after the fire, Rhianna organized Sowing Seeds of Hope, a community seed swap that included making seed balls and throwing them into burn areas.

“It was a fun and tangible way for people to celebrate the importance of seeds,” Rhianna recalled. “I’m really looking forward to seeing the plants that come up in the spring.”

Sowing Seeds of Hope was one of many seed exchanges that Rhianna has organized over the years in her various leadership roles within the plant and planting world. I met Rhianna when she was coordinator of the OSU Extension Service’s Master Gardener program in Jackson County. Later, she was executive director of Our Family Farms, a local nonprofit group dedicated to supporting regenerative agricultural practices.

Our Family Farms advocates for “seed sanctuaries,” which are agricultural zones where growing genetically engineered crops is prohibited. The goal of seed sanctuaries is to maintain farmland where non-GE crops can be grown without the risk of contamination from GE plant pollen. Jackson County became a seed sanctuary when Measure 15-119 passed in 2014.

Rhianna utilizes her advocacy experience in her current role as co-director of Cultivate Oregon, a nonprofit project supported by the Earth Island Institute based in Berkeley, California. The mission of Cultivate Oregon is to build local seed and food system resiliency and to increase organic food production throughout the state.

Rhianna and co-director Laura Jean have established two programs aimed at increasing access to seeds. Seeds to the People provides donated seeds to low-income and underserved populations in Oregon. Rhianna and Laura are working with the Medford library to establish a free “seed library” with some of the donated seeds. The Local Seeds for Local People program focuses on providing locally grown and adapted seeds to farm programs and school gardens in the Rogue Valley.

“We want to support existing farming programs by providing them with seeds that will thrive in our environment and support local seed growers, and by providing education about the importance of planting and saving locally adapted seeds,” Rhianna said. “Seeds are an amazing bridge — they are part of our past and our future.”

So far, she and Laura have partnered with The Farm at Southern Oregon University, the ACCESS Food Share gardens and mobile food pantry, and the Rogue Valley Farm to School gardens.

Another focus of Cultivate Oregon is to provide education and incentives for local farmers who use regenerative and carbon sequestration practices. They hosted a virtual Soil Symposium in November 2020, aimed at helping landowners learn how to produce healthy soils and mitigate against the effects of climate change. In April 2021, they co-hosted the Living Soil Awards with the Friends of Family Farmers organization to celebrate Oregon “HEROs” (holistic, ecological, regenerative operators).

Rhianna also spends time at state conferences and agriculture-related public hearings to advocate for organic and regenerative farmers, and for open-source seeds.

“Farmers are busy facing layers of challenges,” she said. “It’s hard for them to be in an advocacy position, so we make it a point to show up and advocate for them. We know that without farmers we have no food; without seeds, we have no future.”

It might have been inevitable that Rhianna would choose a career path in the plant world. She grew up on her family’s 100-acre farm and vineyard in central Texas, where her mother and grandmother taught her how to garden. “My first job was picking caterpillars off my mom’s hollyhocks and rhubarb plants. I got paid by the caterpillar,” Rhianna said.

She started a landscape maintenance business when she was 16. Later, she decided to study plants more deeply so she moved to Southern Oregon and eventually earned a master’s in education and botany from SOU.

“I gained a lot of knowledge about plants, but we never talked about seeds and how to grow plants,” Rhianna said. “I wanted more of an applied understanding,” so she worked in plant nurseries for 15 years and then as an educator for the OSU Extension Service for 10 years.

“I feel like part of my work is being a translator between plants and people,” Rhianna said. She brings that perspective to her work as chair of the Rogue Valley Food System Network Council and board member for the Southern Oregon Seed Growers Association.

She lives on a one-acre urban mini-farm, called Verdant Phoenix, with her husband, Kerrick Gooden, and their children, Hazel and Rowan. She hopes to use her gardens and greenhouse to educate others about natural farming practices and permaculture.

“My goal is to help move people through the process of information collection to application,” Rhianna said. “I want to create an educational setting where people learn the science [of plants], but also practical things they can do in their own garden to bring scientific principles to life.”

Rhianna has enrolled in Grain School, a program that explores the world of heritage grains. She said she’s excited to learn more about the history and culture of grain cultivation, as well as techniques for growing, harvesting and eating grains.

Of course, Rhianna’s also planning to host more seed swaps through Cultivate Oregon. “We will continue to work hard to get locally grown seeds in the hands of folks who want to grow their food,” she said. “When we all share, we all have enough.”

Favorite plant

I could never choose just one, but one of my favorite plants is Indian blue pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum). When COVID-19 hit and the store shelves were empty of grains and rice, I realized that I needed to learn more about growing, harvesting and eating other grains. I started growing several types of grains, but my favorite is blue pearl millet. (P. glaucum is an ancient grain that is fast-growing and drought tolerant. It has corn-like stalks and cattail-like heads that produce blue-gray seeds high in protein, potassium and B vitamins.)

Inspiring women

Joan Thorndike (owner of Le Mera Gardens in Medford) was one of the first organic flower growers in the state. She helped start the slow flower movement in our area. (https://lemeraflowerfarm.com)

Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalization author. I have been inspired by her advocacy around seed sovereignty. (https://vandanashivamovie.com)

Rowan White is an Indigenous seed steward who weaves stories of ancestral foods, culture and seeds. (www.sierraseeds.org)

Inspiring literature

“One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming” (1978) by Masanobu Fukuoka

“Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture” (2018) by Gabe Brown

“The Botany of Desire” (2002) by Michael Pollan

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.