Restoration of Traditional Anishinaabeg Agricultural Practices, Utilizing the Three Sisters Gardening Method

Final Report for FNC03-472

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $11,500.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Winona LaDuke
White Earth Land Recovery Project
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Project Information


When the White Earth Land Recovery Project submitted their grant request to the North Central Region SARE program, our objectives were to: a) research and restore at least three different types of open pollinated Indigenous White Flint corn with a 90-day or less growing season, with assistance of community groups, b) reintroduce the “Three Sisters” garden method, utilizing Indigenous varieties of corn, squash, and beans, c) increase corn production using various options in fertilizer and cultivation techniques, d) strengthen local agriculture production in the Native community through building a collaborative aimed at traditional and unique seed restoration, greenhouses, local gardening and to increase production of food for community use and for sale through Native Harvest, and e) to increase consumption of traditional foods to benefit the health of our community and expand the knowledge base and community participation for traditional knowledge.

These objectives were created due to the fact that we have good land, and were intended to be healthy people, however 35% of the White Earth Reservation community suffers from Type 2 Diabetes. As well, Indigenous agriculture has declined dramatically over the past one-hundred years, resulting in massive losses of seed stocks to Native communities, from which much of the world’s food stocks originated (i.e. corn, beans, squash, potatoes, and tomatoes). From 1981-1994, some 84% of all non-hybrid vegetable varieties in the country have been lost. As a consequence, our project was designed to expand in this area of traditional agriculture, in particular corn, beans and squash, while we continue to provide food, recovery of traditional knowledge and nutrition.

During the past ten years, the White Earth Land Recovery Project has worked to restore traditional practices of Indigenous agriculture and practices organic farming. Our operations consist of 235 acres of organic and traditional farming broken down into the following categories: We have two acres of organic raspberries, one acre of organic strawberries, ten acres of flint corn, two acres for “Three Sisters” crops and 220 acres of sugar maple trees. Our farming operations are supported by family community laborers as well as numerous volunteers from local and regional areas. Our farming capacity has steadily increased over the last ten years and we have additional land resources that are awaiting development into additional farm acreage.

Our project was two-fold: 1) Expand in the area of traditional agriculture, in particular, corn, beans and squash and 2) Continue to provide food to those who most need it, our elders, and the youth, both who often are fed in institutional programs. We will work to increase the traditional foods available in these programs. Finally we will work to increase the sales of these foods throughout the region and nationally as we secure the benefits of the value-added for our Native products, in particular, our wild rice, maple syrup and corn varieties.

In our description of how we would use the NCRSARE grant to address the problem, we stated this: “this project will increase our production of at least three varieties of heirloom White Flint corn, as well as reintroducing the “Three Sisters Gardening” method to the community, with the re-introduction of corn, beans and squash. We went on to explain how this method is beneficial to the health of the soil, and how it increases yields over time. Working in coordination with local gardeners and community gardening programs, we would assist in building boxes for approximately 20 gardeners as well as work with present greenhouse owners to identify additional sources of additional greenhouses for those who wish to increase the vitality of their gardens with use of a greenhouse”. We stated that we would work in coordination with local gardeners and Native seed programs to grow out on increased number of traditional corn, beans and squash once grown in the region, as well as enhancing local consumption, hosting organic gardening projects and locating and distributing heirloom seeds or plants to interested families who would assist us in increasing our local seed bank.

Our work in 2003/2004:
The White Earth Land Recovery Project in coordination with the Minwamanji’o Program has hosted numerous community meetings on organic gardening and training to enhance knowledge and increase the availability of community produced heirloom seeds. We have researched and located Native seed stocks of corn, beans, and squash, from Seed Savers, for spring planting, and for distribution to local gardeners. As well, we have completed the construction of five greenhouses (2003) as well as 40 grow boxes which were distributed and located strategically throughout the reservation area to persons who have agreed to assist us in growing out these heirloom varieties of seeds, working to build our local seed bank.

With the establishment of our Traditional Community Agriculture Initiative, we have established relationships with many gardeners and farmers interested in growing out an increased number of our traditional seeds/foods for local consumption. As well, we have established a relationship with the Grand Forks USDA Human Nutrition Research Center to conduct a study on the nutritional content of our traditional foods, as well as the effects of a traditional diet and the modern diet.

As well, we have obtained a significant supply of traditional seed stock for upcoming production by community members and WELRP, and have generated an increased awareness of the benefits of growing and eating more traditional foods, over fast foods, or inexpensive processed foods from the store. There has been increased interest by the Elderly Nutrition Program to provide traditional foods on their menus for the elderly. We continue to work to locate additional seed stock, as well as donations for fruit and nut trees, as the communities on the reservation have expressed interest in community orchards.

Indigenous Farming Conference – In January 2004 the White Earth Land Recovery Project hosted the first annual Indigenous Farming Conference at Maplelag Resort, bringing together Native farmers from the North Central region, welcoming guests from as close as North Dakota and as far away as New Mexico. The two-day event included several strategy sessions, special workshops and provided an opportunity for people from a range of communities to network with each other. Participants included: Bad River Gitigaaning Project, Tsyunhehkua of Oneida, Saginaw Chippewa Nation, Seventh Generation Project, Standing Rock Diabetes Program, Prairie Heritage Seed Network, Taos Community Economic Development Corporation, and the Indigenous Environmental Network. There will be a follow-up conference in January 2005, hosted by the Saginaw Chippewa Nation.

Midwest Organic Farming Conference – In February 2004, WELRP sent a delegation of staff to the Midwest Organic Growers and Producers Conference in Lacrosse WI to network, and strengthen their knowledge and skills in organic farming. Attendees from WELRP included: Ron Chilton, Sustainable Communities Coordinator; Pat Wichern, Sustainable Communities Assistant; Justin Dimmel, Vista Volunteer; Bernadette Miller, Vista Volunteer; Kathy Goodwin, WELRP Board Chairperson; Toni Vizenor, WELRP Board member; Curtis and Darlene Ballard, tribal members; and Winona LaDuke, WELRP Founding Director.

Family Farm Defenders Conference – Because we know that the farming communities in northwestern Minnesota, including non-Indian farmers who live on our reservation, are facing dire economic and environmental challenges, we wanted to insure that the national and international dialogue on the quality of farming was brought to our area. We have noticed the constant decline in family farms, and in 2003, documented the rise of genetically modified seed use in our area. All of this is a concern to our community, as we are interested in local, sustainable agriculture, and are deeply concerned about the potential for genetic pollution in our land and food sources. We recognize that we are at times awkward in organizing non-Indian farmers and individuals in our area, so we wanted to bring in peers. In April, in response to a generous invitation by the White Earth Land Recovery Project, Family Farm Defenders held their 2004 annual meeting on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. Family Farm Defender is a coalition of organizations and individuals who are committed to the creation of farmer controlled and consumer oriented food and fiber production.

This year’s theme was “Defending Food Sovereignty” which was fitting for our work on Traditional Agriculture restoration. Key presenters included: Percy Schmeiser (Canadian Farmer currently being sued by Monsanto), S’ra DeSantis (researcher who exposed GMO corn in Mexico), Patty Lovera (food irradiation expert with Public Citizen), John Ikerd (Ag. Econ. Professor at the U of MO), George Naylor (President of the National Family Farm Coalition), Andrew Hanson (anti-factory-farm lawyer with Midwest Environmental Advocates), Winona LaDuke (Indigenous Activist and Founding Director of WELRP), as well as international family farm representatives from Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

Several workshops were conducted to include: patenting life forms, Permaculture, agroforestry, global dairy crisis, industrial agriculture and factory farming, as well as food irradiation, groundwater contamination, and consumer labeling issues. Fieldtrips were conduced to include: a visit to the WELRP 220-acre maple sugarbush, Curt Ballard’s organic soybean operation, Steve Dahlberg’s edible forest, the WE Tribal College, WLERP’s organic berry patch and the petrochemical potato fields of RDO Offutt Company.

On July 15, 2004, three youth from the community set off from White Earth, and headed toward the warm deserts of New Mexico and the Pueblo Lands, to learn about Traditional Agriculture and Permaculture design. John Bruguier, Michael Bower, and Jared Keezer, accompanied by Diana King, and Sarah Alexander of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, traveled to New Mexico for a 10-day intensive course run by the Traditional Native American Farmers Association. Native Youth from all over the country came to learn about traditional agriculture, and to make, “The Old way new Again,” as Clayton Brascoupe describes it. Clayton along with Louie Hena, of Tesuque Pueblo have been running the Native American Permanent Culture Design Course for the last nine years. The course was started as an attempt to address environmental and health problems within their own community, as well as native Communities throughout North America.

The White Earth Land Recovery Project is hoping to continue to send students to this Permaculture design course, in order to develop youth leaders within the community who will be able to contribute to our work on recovering local food systems.

Community Gardening – in 2004, we obtained a significant supply of traditional seed stock for production by community members and WELRP, and have generated an increased awareness of the benefits of growing and eating more traditional foods, over fast foods, or inexpensive processed foods from the store. There has been an increased interest by the Elderly Nutrition Program to provide traditional foods on their menus for the elderly. We continue to work to locate additional seed stock, as well as donations for fruit and nut trees, as the communities on the reservation have expressed interest in community orchards.

This past spring, with assistance from the WE RTC and local farmers, we were able to provide garden tilling services to 150 community members. We once again hosted our traditional foods stand at the White Earth Pow-wow in June, and with increased local food production, we were able to provide fresh produce from the WELRP gardens at the newly established WE Produce Stand, offering fresh food items such as kale, cabbage, beans, potatoes, lettuce and sugar-free baked items.

Heritage Turkeys – Heritage Turkeys are here! The White Earth Land Recovery Project has teamed up with local organic farmers Curt and Darlene Ballard to raise varieties of traditional turkeys. Almost all of the turkeys available in grocery stores today are test tube turkeys floating in a shallow gene pool. For fifty years the improved, broad breasted bronze has been the standard. What this means, is that a turkey gets fat so quickly, it can’t even mate naturally, but must be reproduced artificially. We then baste and brine what remains of those poor birds after slaughter, but the joy of eating turkey wasn’t always in the dressing. Generations ago, raising turkeys was a serious business. As with corn, there were different turkeys in different regions, each with its own unique taste, texture and colorful feathers. This past spring, we began raising twenty Bourbon Red Turkeys, some of which will be available for order this coming winter. We are hoping to begin breeding the birds, and expanding the farming operations, and over the next few years, we will develop a market for these turkeys, in our partnership with Heritage/Slow Foods and with local restaurants.

Mino-Miijim Program – Over the past year, our Mino-Miijim program served monthly 160-170 families. Margaret and an AmeriCorps VISTA member (Bernadette Miller) deliver wild rice, mazon, maple syrup, preserves made with honey, coffee and buffalo meat each month across the reservation. Many people that they deliver to are shut ins, so Margaret is a welcome sight.

Maple Syrup Harvest 2004 – We had another excellent Maple Syrup harvest this year, with 19,340 gallons of maple sap collected and processed into 448 finished gallons of maple syrup. With any maple syrup harvest, there is much work, and to assist us this year, we had some amazing volunteer groups assist us once again. Our first groups of volunteers consisted of 10 young ladies from Colorado State University. While here, they experienced slippery roads, chilly weather, and spring snowstorm. Many of the comments from them consisted of how much more they appreciate the maple syrup on their pancakes, now that they know how much work it is to make it. As well we had repeat groups from Hamline and St. Thomas Universities. Each spring they look forward to assisting Ron in the Sugarbush, and this year, they assisted Native Harvest’s move to its new facility as well. Our maple syrup operation was completed by April 15th, with clean up ensuing for a couple of more weeks. To complete our round of volunteers, we hosted a group of high school students from Hillside-Murray out of St. Paul. They were excited to see all our wonderful projects and programs at WELRP and were able to observe a traditional Pow-wow during Indian Awareness week.

Additional Nutritious Foods – We have begun collaboration with the North Country Food Bank of Crookston, MN to obtain other nutritional foods for our Mino-Miijim Program. North Country Food Bank is a member of the MN Food Bank Network and Second Harvest, a national food bank. How does this work for WELRP? North Country receives a vast array of food products allowing WELRP to choose healthy products to offer to White Earth members. A shopping list is mailed once a month with their newsletter, with items most often in case lots and can be ordered by the box or pound. Agencies such as WELRP do not pay anything for the product, though each agency does share in the cost of getting the product to the warehouse, utilities, staff and food solicitation costs, etc. This fee is calculated on a per pound basis and is called “share maintenance”. This unique program will assist WELRP in providing wholesome and nutritious foods along with our traditional foods. We plan to use the North Country Food bank to supplement our foods with USDA approved meats (frozen) and fresh vegetables and fruits when available.

We have done much to build towards sustainability in our Mino-Miijim Program, and we hope that by expanding our agriculture base and working with local producers, we will increase local food production. This includes buffalo, which are raised locally, along with maple syrup and berries that are produced regionally. Also with our newly formed collaboration with the North Country Food Bank, we will be able to supplement our deliveries of traditional foods with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as obtain USDA approved meats on occasion. As well, we will work with the Grand Forks USDA Human Nutrition Research center to conduct two studies: one will be to study the effects of the traditional diet, with a modern diet, and the second will test the nutritional content of our traditional foods. This information will be distributed to the members of the Mino-Miijim Program, as well as the broader community, to inform people as to their choices, and increase their knowledge and consumption of local traditional foods.

The board of WELRP meets every two months, and evaluates each project quantitatively, and qualitatively. The board, as well, frequently attends our staff strategy meetings, and works collaboratively with our staff in development of programs. Methods include reports submitted by staff members, written comments by community members, number of individuals served by a given project, products sold, number of institutions collaborated with meetings attended, and publicity generated. The board provides guidance through suggestions, observations, and informal community organizing.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.