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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Batter Up: Throwing Seedballs!

Air Date: Week of

John Burnett reports from New Mexico on a new method of seed planting that's being touted as easy and economical. Imported from Japan, the method is popularly referred to as "seedballing" and it entails rolling seeds in a ball of clay about the size of a baseball and tossing them on to the land.


CURWOOD: All around us from small patches of erosion along roadsides to broad expanses of overused land, we know places where nothing much seems to grow. A few forlorn weeds, maybe, but most plants, like most people, like company. Seeding these bare spots can be expensive and frustrating as anyone who's tried to start a lawn will tell you. But there is a little-known Japanese technique for habitat restoration that's both cheap and easy. It's called seedballing. Seed balls are small balls of clay encasing soil and seeds. They can be thrown just about anywhere, and when they are watered they give their seedlings a strong start. Folks are trying it now in northern New Mexico, including Native Americans and Federal agencies. Landscape photographer Jim Bones is promoting the seedballs, and as John Burnett reports, Mr. Bones is trying to prove that complex problems need not have complex solutions.

(Children speaking; footfalls)

BURNETT: It's Monday morning, and the delighted fifth graders at the Tesuche Pueblo Elementary School are being told to plunge their hands into a tub of mud. They're learning how to make seedballs from Louis Jina, the pueblo's environmental specialist, and Jim Bones, a photographer turned seedball apostle.

JINA: You want to come over and help open the seed -- maybe we put them all in here first, huh? Or in the bucket? This would be good.

BONES: Just throw the seeds in here, okay? These ones right here on the side. Don't touch these ones.

(Voices and crumpling sounds)

CHILD: Put them in here, the clay?

BONES: No, he's going to put them in here.

BURNETT: The seeds they'll use to make seedballs today are plant species that have disappeared from the over-grazed, eroded, and flood scoured Tesuche Reservation just north of Santa Fe. Jina hopes to return to the land some of the plants that his ancestors used.

(Seeds spill into can)

JINA: Put the seeds in a can, a mixing can. This is what I'm planning on using today. This is common reed. Long time ago, they used these for shafts for their arrows, and so, you know, I want to bring that back. We also use Apache plume, which grows wild out there, but we don't have any of this. So I want to bring it back.

(Children's voices)

BONES: Okay, now as he pours that in, you want to be mixing it around in there. Make sure it doesn't get too wet.

JINA: Mix the mud. Mix the mud. Let's go, let's make it into mud.

BURNETT: The proportions are 1 part water, 1 part soil humus, 3 parts seed mix, and 5 parts powdered red clay. When the sticky brown mixture is ready, the kids pinch it off, roll it into half-inch balls, and toss them onto a plastic sheet.

(Children's voices)

CHILD: I need more mud.

WOMAN: We're going to get some buckets of water. You can wash your hands later.

BURNETT: Inside of an hour, the blue tarp is covered with little red clay orbs the size of Milk Duds. After the seed balls have dried for 24 hours they can be sown. The adobe shell protects them until the rain comes. The clay then melts, as an adobe house dissolves, and the seeds have their own fertile medium in which to germinate. Jim Bones, wiry, intense, effusive, the cuffs of his work shirt stained with red mud, stands by and watches admiringly.

BONES: So how many seedballs would you guess you've made here?

(Children yell out different answers.)

BONES: More than a thousand! I guarantee you, I've counted before. Probably a couple of thousand seedballs here. Did anybody really get tired?


CHILD: Thank you.

BONES: So this is the easiest form of agriculture I know of. Nature does the work, and nature does it best. (Aside: How beautiful...)

BURNETT: Current reseeding techniques leave much room for improvement. Seed drills plant mechanically, but they're expensive implements and must be pulled by tractors. Seeds can be scattered by hand or by airplane, but once they're on the ground they're vulnerable to wind and to predators like harvester ants and kangaroo rats. On the Tesuche Reservation, the traditional method has been to sow seeds on freshly-plowed ground, but this destroys the soil structure and invites weeds. The Tesuche environmental manager, Louis Jina, is trying out seedballs on an eroded patch of the reservation where only juniper and choya cactus seem to thrive now.

JINA: On a farmer aspect of it, it's great. I don't have to use fossil fuels to sit on a tractor and tear up some soils. I don't have to do that. I can go over here, see this grass here, this silos ground, I just get a seedball and I throw it out there. I'm not ripping up Mother Nature. I'm not scarring her, not hurting her, nothing.

(Running water)

BURNETT: The Tesuche Pueblo sits on the vast watershed that drains into the Rio Grande, the great southwestern river that spans 3 states, 2 nations, and 10 centuries of history. Jim Bones sits crosslegged under a thicket of willow beside the river, ruminating on how its watershed has changed in the 35 years he's been photographing it.

BONES: I've seen many of my cherished places, landscapes, living landscapes, so totally altered, even unintentionally. Most of the cases have been degradation, loss of soil, burning. Things that are beyond our control, but within our ability to rehabilitate. And I'm seeing the diversity disappear. I'm seeing the soil erode. I'm seeing huge gashes where there used to be free-flowing streams.

BURNETT: Jim Bones is an accomplished landscape photographer with 7 books to his name, who studied under the Great Depression-era photographer Russell Lee. Two years ago he was commissioned to shoot pictures for a book about the world's authorities on sustainable agriculture. He ended up spending 3 days with an 83-year-old Japanese natural farming master named Masunobo Fukuoka, who taught him about seedballs.

BONES: So much of my training, much of my experience and understanding envisioned from nature, clicked on his idea when he described it. It was so beautifully simple that it could work. It is what a mathematician would call an elegant solution to a very complex problem, and it does all the things you need. It's cheap, it's quick, it's low-maintenance.

BURNETT: But it's also untested. So far, the praise for seedballs comes mainly from anecdotal observation. The Federal Government, as the largest manager of open space in the west, is the biggest potential customer for seedballs, but the government wants to see proof of their effectiveness before experimenting on a large scale. There's certainly interest, though. The New Mexico offices of the US Forest Service, the National Parks Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, have all asked for more information. Two potential uses: to restore burned areas and to stabilize eroding riverbanks.

(Footfalls over gravel)

BURNETT: A Santa Fe environmental firm called River Way is putting seedballs to their first scientific test in this country. Researchers have scattered 42,000 on an acre of over-grazed high desert just outside of Santa Fe. They set up control plots to compare seedballs with unprotected seeds. Only a few months into the 3-year demonstration, River Way President and biologist Michael Stewart is already excited by what he's finding.

STEWART: Look at these 2! God, that's as big as I've ever seen it, look at that clover! That's like --

MAN: Yeah, now that's going to be here in the spring.

STEWART: Happy clover! God, no kidding. Look at that. Incredible.

BURNETT: The seedballs have produced an unexpected result. Not only do they appear to restore habitat, but they seem to revive a sense of community. A wildlife biologist named Roberta Salazar oversaw a project for the Bureau of Land Management, which included seedballs to restore a riparian zone of the Rio Grande just south of Taos, New Mexico. Traditionally, the government would contract a project like this, or do it in house. Instead, Ms. Salazar joined a group of volunteers, of grandmothers, river guides, science teachers. They spent all day rolling seedballs, which were later tossed on the riverbanks.

SALAZAR: It's a very healthy and healing -- it's just wonderful to be working together. And I know everybody who's worked now on this project, which is a labor-intensive project, it's a hands-on project, has felt very good when they've walked away at the end of the day. And it's important to get people involved in taking care of the land. It's important for people to understand what's happening, and the best way to do that is just to have them out here on the ground.

(Children's voices)

HARRIS: Come on, kids, over here. I only explain this once. We're going to try and reseed this area up here; it's totally bare. Look at this, kids.

BURNETT: Seedballs are also taking root as a teaching tool. Students from the Tesuche Pueblo, from a school in Juarez, Mexico, and now this group from a private academy in Taos, are using seedballs to learn how plants grow and why soil must be protected. These grade schoolers have assembled on the banks of the Rio Grande to scatter the dried seedballs they made earlier. The seedball crew chief is a raft guy named Steve Harris, who, like Jim Bones, has grown beyond his profession and into a committed environmentalist.

HARRIS: Now let's take a double handful here. I'm going to pass the box around. Just reach in there with 2 hands. Scoop them out.

BURNETT: Trying to revegetate a few bald spots by the river is a modest enough project. Masanobu Fukuoka thinks bigger. He thinks seedballs are the next green revolution. He wants to see them dropped by the ton from airplanes to halt the advancement of arid lands around the globe. The seeds would be selected for their suitability to each locality. But first, start small. Win more converts. As Mr. Fukuoka says, make seedballs. Just do it. Don't doubt.

(Clay balls rolling in a box)

HARRIS: This is the sound of a radio correspondent sewing seedballs.

(Clay balls continue to roll, amidst the sounds of children)

BURNETT: This is John Burnett reporting.

HARRIS: Okay, has everybody got their square meter? Not in the river! Not in the river, kids. There you go.


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