Final report for FNC18-1124
I am a beginning farmer exploring markets for traditional wild gathered teas grown in a high tunnel vs harvesting outdoors. The high tunnel space is approximately 3000 square feet. There will also be growing space outside the high tunnel for comparison at approximately 1/3 acre in which a portion will be used for growing teas using permaculture practices.
The Lakota people of the Northern Great Plains once used a variety of native plants in their traditional diets. Today, these plants are disappearing from many Lakota diets and from the landscape of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Over/improper harvesting, pesticide use, invasive species, over grazing and development all threaten these native plants in the wild. This project will use a high-tunnel system to cultivate the following traditional Lakota foods including: Mentha arvensis, Agastache foeniculum for use as herbal teas and wild strawberries and wild raspberry. In addition to increasing the yield of these crops through season extension in a high-tunnel, these plants will also be processed into value-added products such as bagged and loose leaf teas bagged. The project will also set aside a percentage of seeds each growing season to create a source of seeds to be sown as plant starts for other Native American prospective and beginning farmers and to help restore these culturally important plant foods to wild areas. Less than 1% of tribal members in South Dakota are agricultural producers and they have little access to large acreages. This project creates Native American agricultural products, a market and a system of production that is culturally appropriate.
- Identify 4 plants, traditionally wild crafted by Lakota, that have potential to become both raw crops and value-added Native American agricultural crops.
- Identify potential markets, local/regional, national and international for these products as well as processing facilities and/or equipment needed to produce the final product.
- Evaluate the usefulness of a high-tunnel to extend the growing season of these crops and increase the yield while reducing loss due to weather, pests, and other factors that are threatening them in the wild.
- Share the findings through 1 workshop, a final report as well as social media.
I was able to apply for NRCS EQIP cost share grant, but due to delays with the application, I was not able start growing as planned in 2018. I will update and evaluate crop performance and report findings in 2019-2020 here and in social media. I planted Mentha arvensis or wild field mint, what my Lakota people call Ceyaka in 2019. That same year, I also planted Wahpe Wastemna (wild bergamot) Monarda fistulosa (bee balm) and wild raspberry and wild strawberry outdoors. All of these traditionally wild-gathered plants can be made into herbal teas. We're also exploring the use of them as another value-added product and essential oils.
In 2020 I have planted more Monarda fistulosa in a high-tunnel and plan to transplant more wild raspberry, wild rose and wild strawberries onto Rebel Earth this spring and summer. We tried a few varieties by seed inside trays, but they didn't come up, so this year we'll be attempting to do this directly into the ground.
Our planned Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Growing Traditional Herbal Teas in High-Tunnels Workshops planned for spring of 2020 had to be canceled due to Covid-19. We're still hoping to conduct these if the situation allows, however, our back-up plan is to work with SDSU Extension on conducting either live digital trainings or to record them and release them either via you-tube or social media.
June 2020. With the high-tunnel completed and ready to go this year and having planted the perennial Ceyaka (wild field mint, Mentha arvensis) last year despite delays, there was no need to plant this spring. The ceyaka herbal tea is up and still growing. By mid-May it was already over a foot tall, now much of it is approaching two feet. We completed a thinning of the rows and have the herbal tea drying shed (built last year) full of hanging teas, drying. This was just from a thinning, not even a full harvest. We will most likely be completing our first full harvest of all four rows this month, before it starts to flower.
Once the tea is fully, dried, we will crush it so that we can ship it in bulk to our processor for testing and bagging into the finished product (boxes of tea bags ready for sale on Amazon.com as well as locally). Last year, we didn't send off any of the late planted tea as the crop had a powdery mildew pop up late in the season despite the roll-up sides. This year, 2020, after having treated the soil, we have no powdery mildew issues.
Outside of the high-tunnels, last year we also planted wild bergamot, another traditional Lakota herbal tea, which came up a bit spotty outdoors in the plots. In 2020, however, the outdoor beds are already full, the bergamot ranges from 6" to 10" tall as of June 1st. We expect to be harvesting our first harvest of this herbal tea this month as well. As these are perennial teas, we hand-harvest by snipping them above the bottom two leaves, each time we harvest. This allows the plants to continue to grow towards the second harvesting. If weather and temperatures hold, right now we're expecting that we'll see between three to four harvests, maybe more.
COVID-19 Update: luckily we have 6 farmers/farm-workers camping on site on Rebel Earth since early March. These hardy individuals have allowed progress on site to continue, despite the global pandemic. They've quarantined on site as a team and helped me get everything planted on time. We continue to work and learn as a group on this project and they assisted me in getting out to a traditional medicine gathering spot on the Reservation, called Yellow Bear Canyon to identify spring transplant/fall seed gathering locations. We're also researching how to foster local microbial growth from the soils growing around these same native plants using a method called, Korean Natural Farming wherein you gather a few handfuls of the soil and innoculate into a compost tea. In a few weeks we'll be returning to the spot to gather it up. Our theory is that the potency of these native and traditionally wild-gathered herbal teas will be enhanced if we can replicate these beneficial microbes in the soils both inside the high-tunnels and outdoors in the production plots.
Educational & Outreach Activities
In this reporting period, Rebel Earth Farms joined SDSU Extension in conducting two high tunnel production workshops on Pine Ridge covering the following: Best types of high tunnel structures and cover for the great plains area, range of high tunnel crops, including potential traditional Lakota foods, planting start and stop dates, and drip irrigation.
Due to the delay with the NRCS EQIP application, the high tunnels were constructed in fall/winter 2018. I will be able to begin planting the 4 identified plants this March 2019. I am currently identifying potential markets for the traditional herbal teas. I will share the findings through one workshop, final report and social media.
June 2020 Update: Our planned Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Growing Traditional Herbal Teas in High-Tunnels Workshops planned for spring of 2020 had to be canceled due to Covid-19. We’re still hoping to conduct these if the situation allows, however, our back-up plan is to work with SDSU Extension on conducting either live digital trainings or to record them and release them either via you-tube or social media.
At Rebel Earth Farms we are now partnered with Trees, Water & People (TWP) and FarmFromaBox (FFAB) (www.farmfromabox.com). In 2020, we'll be adding a solar powered FFAB unit to the farm which through solar power will irrigate up to three acres (including all four high-tunnels) as well as orchards, food-forest windbreaks, etc. TWP is assisting us with starting a nursery of both fruit and berry trees, all native on site and through another generous donation from an individual, we'll also be adding some perennial fruit orchard and berry species. TWP is going to help us plant a non-traditional wind-break on site, comprised of not just usual windbreak tree species, but native fruit trees, berry shrubs and more. The FFAB unit will help us irrigate this food-forest windbreak.
We also wrote another SARE grant, that was awarded, in which we'll be exploring Utilizing Waste Heat from Compost and Biochar generation on-site to extend the growing season inside our high-tunnels while also creating and utilizing locally made soil amendments to improve the health of our soils in a regenerative way while simultaneously increasing our production.
One of our on-site (COVID-19 quarantined) farmworkers, recently said to me, "What we're doing here is so important to everyone. Not just Lakota people, but everyone. Covid has shown the world, the weaknesses of an entirely interlinked global food supply chain, not to mention medicine supply chain. These teas, these Lakota medicines we're growing here, actually can help alleviate respiratory ailments. Look at how many people are asking you for food!"
Another Covid-19 Update: the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Emergency Management Task Force's director, personally reached out to me about expanding production of food on Rebel Earth. Another official with the Tribe's Economic Development office, asked if I could help provide plant starts and garden education to upwards of 30 tribal families in her district of Pine Ridge Reservation. Rebel Earth has added about another acre of production in 2020, including the new plantings of traditional Lakota herbal teas towards meeting this request. We're also in communication with SDSU Extension about helping us plan and develop this scaling up of operations and outreach to potential new farmers.
Within the next couple of weeks, I'll be sending off the first harvest of Ceyaka to BAM Packing, Inc. in California to be tested and once I have the test results, I will share them here and on social media. We may already have enough for testing drying in the shed from our early spring thinning harvest. Once they receive our loose, crushed, bulk dried herbal teas, they'll then process our first order into boxed, tea bags, ready for market both on Amazon.com (if I choose) and locally. I plan to start test marketing the boxes as soon as the COVID situation allows. BAM said it would probably take a couple of weeks to complete both testing and processing before they'd ship the finished value-added product back to Rebel Earth. So, I'm still hopeful that I can conduct some market testing with my previously identified local and regional markets as well as perhaps local farmers markets, again, if such happen this year with Covid.
Update March 17th: 2021: BAM Packing Inc changed their policies on the rough drying and processing on our end so we now have to bag the teas ourselves or purchase a machine to help us filter out stems. We’re researching such machines and procedures, but are hand packing the tea bags ourselves to market the teas this spring and summer 2021.