Traditional Tribal Growing Practices for Integrated Pest Management

Final report for FNC20-1212

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $27,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Member of Oneida Nation of Wisconsin
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Daniel Cornelius
Member of Oneida Nation of Wisconsin
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Project Information

Description of operation:

This project included seven growing sites in three communities in 2020 covering roughly 10 acres, despite pandemic challenges. Those efforts continued into 2021 where collaborations from 2020 expanded into connected efforts deployed in additional Tribal communities. Total acres remained the same in 2021 and 2022, as the focus narrowed to improved management of smaller acreage, despite additional collaborations.


This project seeks to address the problem of implementing effective integrated "pest" management (IPM) through traditional Indigenous intercropping systems supported by innovative use of modern equipment and methods.  Our individual farms will gather information and serve as demonstration sites, highlighting how Native growers and communities with minimal financial resources can expand agricultural production in a scalable yet culturally appropriate manner.

Tribal member-operated partner farms each grow three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) along with plant relatives (sunflowers, amaranth, sun chokes, and other plants) using different techniques for weed, insect, and animal management pressures that are often magnified given heirloom Indigenous crops' elevated nutritional profile.  Partners will record and share their cropping layouts and data, evaluating the effects of different planting and management techniques using both a BCS two-wheel, walk-behind tractor and four-wheel tractors with an emphasis on implements that minimally impact the soil like a rotary plow, rolling crimper, and no-till planter.  Additional IPM strategies will employ fencing, cropping layout (i.e. squash perimeters), simulated predators and decoys, natural seed treatments, fertilizers, and timing.  

Three partners with four farm sites will demonstrate and evaluate a spectrum of intercropping traditional production strategies incorporating degrees of modern technology, and additional partners will be invited to participate.

Project Objectives:
  1. Evaluate and compare the effectiveness of traditional Indigenous cropping systems at different scales

The project's first year overcame pandemic-related challenges in preparing and planting crops in each of the three partner's communities.  These sites ranged from small garden areas with a couple brand new growers to several acres using a four row no-till planter.   Results in 2020 were mixed with animal damage, poor soil, and drought being the biggest challenges.

2. Expand knowledge by convening partner farmers with additional Tribal growers to evaluate and share best IPM practices at different stages of the project

Results have been shared through online trainings led by project partners in spring 2021.  The pandemic was a virtually insurmountable barrier for workshops in 2020.  However, this project was able to bring equipment to two new growers in the Lac du Flambeau community, giving them the ability to plant and grow for the first time.  Planting and crop progress was also shared on social media platforms, reaching several hundred people.

3. Share the results in field days, workshops, and through a resource guide.  While applicants are applying individually, each also professionally works in Native American agriculture where they regularly teach and provide technical assistance to a large population of Native growers and food producers, so the reach of this project will be substantial.

As referenced in #2, workshops were not possible during the pandemic in 2020.  Workshops are currently in the planning stage for 2021 to expand upon the online trainings conducted in spring 2021.



Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jessika Greendeer - Producer
  • Greg Johnson - Producer


Materials and methods:

This project will have three field sites between the three partners, Dan Cornelius, Jessika Greendeer, and Greg Johnson.  Both partners will use Indigenous intercropping at various scales of production to demonstrate a range of options that can work for other Tribal growers and prospective growers. Minimal quantitative data collection includes total planting area, seed density, soil testing, and harvest yield.  Qualitative data collection includes monthly plant condition, weed prevalence, animal/insect pressure, and other observations.

Mr. Cornelius' first field area is located at the edge of Madison, Wisconsin where a two-wheel BCS tractor will use a combination of mowers and a rotary plow to demonstrate and research a modern application of traditional Indigenous intercropping directly into highly invasive reed canary grass without the use of chemical herbicides.  A minimum of four test plots will be grown in both years: 1-2) corn planted in May and June, respectively, with squash/pumpkin perimeter, 3) a small no-till corn plot using the precision seeder, and 4) a separate squash/pumpkin plot to serve as a control in evaluating weed suppression of reed canary grass. 

Mr. Cornelius' second field area will be a new growing area converted from a conventional corn/soybean rotation (entering second year of organic transition).  This operation will demonstrate research application of larger scale growing approaches using a four-row corn planter in plowed and no-till plots.  Squash/pumpkins will be planted in strips to employ intercropping on a larger scale.

Ms. Greendeer's farm is located outside Hudson, Wisconsin.  A graduate of the Rodale Institute, Ms. Greendeer is working to implement an organic no-till cropping system for corn integrated with squash, beans, and other crops.  These crops will be planted in the first year of this project, and will be expanded in the second year.

Greg Johnson will plant shorter season corn and squash on the Lac du Flabmeau reservation with a two-wheel tractor.

Research results and discussion:

Measuring results on this effort is complex given the diversity in field sites and approaches.  However, that diversity also provides an opportunity to contextualize the implications of various scales of production and appropriate integration of production equipment and technology.  These production scales ranged from raised bed gardens to walk-behind tractors to tractors with a four-row planter.

Raised beds and garden-scale production are accessible to new and very small scale growers, as well as elders.  However, small scale corn production is exceedingly difficult without adequate fencing to keep out deer and raccoons.  Cranes and other birds pose another challenge, even in sites with excellent perimeter fencing.  The labor necessary for constructing and maintaining three sisters, especially corn, is difficult to justify except for specialty seed production.  That said, the ability to manage high fertility soils allows high production levels at the equivalent of over 100 bushels/acre in these small systems.  Squash and beans are well-suited for raised beds where trellising is easy to install and manage.

Moving to mid-sized production, the BCS walk-behind tractor has proved a remarkably flexible and efficient tool in expanding scales of production.  Within this project, the BCS was used in multiple ways, including simple tillage, mowing weeds and grasses in between rows, use of a rotary plow attachment for minimized soil disturbance, and further use of the rotary plow in conjunction with a regular tractor to prepare and create raised rows and mounds.  The novel use of the BCS rotary plow is an excellent application that is particular well-suited for sites with rich soil and highly invasive grasses where the plow created planting strips cut underneath the grass rhizomes.  This approach gives roughly a 3 week window where seeds may be planted without noticeable weed pressure, which is a notable difference compared to tillage that exacerbates weed growth from each cut rhizome creating a new plant.  The BCS mower attachment is then used to manage grasses and weeds in between corn and squash rows.  This approach easily yields 50-100 bushels/acre in areas that would be virtually impossible to plant by any other means, absent herbicide application.  Planting outer rows and squash and pumpkins allows the vines to grow inward.  Rows may be integrated into the field and plants may also be integrated within rows.

This project also explored creation and management of mounds, which were used historically by many Native communities, as were raised rows. Mounds were constructed by first burning grasses.  Plots were then plowed with a specialty "yeoman's chisel plow" that may be used with smaller tractors in the 35-40hp range.  Plots were left to sit for two weeks to allow rhizomes to dry in the air before being plowed again and then tilled with a rotator on a regular tractor.  Finally, the BCS walk-behind tractor with a rotary plow was used to build raised rows since the plow lifts soil to the right side.  The same approach was then done cross-wise to create individuals mounds roughly 5ft in diameter.  That size is ideal for being able to reach the center of the mound from the edges.  Documentation of historic mounds indicate fairly large size at closer to 8 to even 10ft.  The initial year of production in the mound system was exceptionally productive.  However, maintaining production does require substantial weeding and ongoing maintenance.  Labor was significantly higher than the BCS minimal till row system.  Yields were over 50 bushel/acre for corn in the mound system.

Larger scale approaches brought many interesting insights.  Approaches varied from pure no-till into perennial grasses to plowing and interseeding with cover crops.  Corn established well into the perennial grass system, but overall yields were very low.  Fields were mowed prior to planting.  The best results were haying immediately prior to planting because grasses took longer to regrow vs simple mowing.  Haying also eliminated windrows created by a brush hog.  Corn was then planted with the no-till four row corn planter with down pressure on the row cleaners maximized.  The BCS walk-behind was then used to mow in between the rows.  Corn establishment in the system worked well, although seed variety did make a difference.   Late summer drought when corn was pollinating posed significant challenges because the grasses absorb both nutrients and water.  Best results came from an Indigenous variety with rigorous early plant growth with a solid yet compact stalk on a roughly 95-day corn.  This variety yielded close to 25 bushels in the best circumstances.  Major benefits from this approach included 1) dramatically less labor and input from plowing an entire field, 2) improved soil health from not tilling, and 3) maintaining perennial forage for livestock.  Despite mixed-to-poor overall results, this approach nonetheless maintains promise if varieties could be selected for less water and nutrient inputs.  Ideal growing conditions without drought and applying adequate fertilizer are both essential considerations for this approach.

The alternative approach is plowing and then interesting cover crops into the corn as a means to add biomass and nitrogen from legumes like clover.  Best results were interesting 2-3 weeks after planting corn immediately after cultivating.  The BCS with a tiller was used for this cultivating because it helped provide an excellent seed bed for cover crop establishment.  Cover crop mixtures used over 8 different types and mixes of seeds.  Red clover was an excellent option for establishment that brought biomass and nutrients while adding living cover for livestock forage following crop harvest.

From a broader context, this project provided essential support that has served as a catalyst for several other initiatives that are continuing to expand at a nearly exponential scale.  The approaches trialed here have expanded to multiple other Tribal locations.  Beyond engaging new growers, particularly at Lac du Flambeau, this effort has spurred scaled growing operations across Wisconsin.  These field sites have helped provide a foundation that resulted in recent large grants.  They have also led to new initiatives in technical harvesting and have helped lead to landscape level planning.


Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 On-farm demonstrations
2 Online trainings
2 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
4 Other educational activities: Extensive outreach has emerged from this effort

Participation Summary:

16 Farmers participated
24 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

As substantial covid disruptions eased over the past couple years, this project expanded its outreach efforts with multiple workshops, field days, demonstrations, and videos.  The first full field day was held in August 2021 at Silverwood County Park in southern Wisconsin where one of the main demonstration and research plots was located.  Over 40 participants learned about strategies for intercropping cover crops into Indigenous corn, experimental efforts to grow corn directly into perennial grasses, and use of cucurbits as a pest management approach.  Further tours and a workshop were held throughout 2021, highlighted by a harvest event at Yowela Farms that drew over 100 people, including many other growers and agricultural professionals.  Greg Johnson and Dan Cornelius both presented Indigenous perspectives on agricultural and food systems while participants were able to receive hands-on practice in braiding corn and learning about three sisters through direct field interactions.

Efforts continued to evolve in 2022 with each of the partners expanding production areas and techniques with corresponding expanded community engagement.  A field day in July intensively focused on intercropping with no-till and cover crops both highlighted.


Learning Outcomes

75 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Lessons learned from this project clearly extend beyond its initial scope with the unanticipated impacts of a global pandemic disrupting the ability to travel, coordinate, and host community workshops.  However, these challenges also created new opportunities for each of the partners.

Dan Cornelius Highlights

Applying various scales of production was advanced ranging from a walk-behind tractor to a four-row corn planter, including innovative use of these scales of equipment, including within conjunction with one another.  Planting strategies have focused on evaluating scales of no-till practices ranging from pure no-till into perennial pasture to a version of individual strip tilling into invasive grasses like reed canary and quack grass to tilling with interseeding cover crops.  The scales of equipment are small compared to conventional and larger scale agricultural producers, but they are significant for most Indigenous growers.  The four-row, no-till planter substantially reduces labor and increases efficiency, although requires greater equipment, storage, and overall production capacity.

Small Scale Three Sisters Production

The majority of Indigenous growers in the Great Lakes Region are very small scale, operating at what the general public would perceive as a garden scale.  That small scale should not minimize the impact of these operations because these gardens produce substantial amounts of food for both household and community needs.  However, preparing land, planting, and then managing is a major challenge, especially for Indigenous corn that requires more space than vegetable production.  Tillers are the common strategy for preparing these plots, requiring significant time and labor.  Tilling also brings harsh impact to soil structure.  

This project has supported expansion of techniques allowing preparation, planting, and maintenance of corn, bean, and squash production using a walk-behind tractor.  This basic technique uses a mower followed by a rotary plow that cuts a narrow strip through thick grass, allowing easy planting and then maintenance by mowing in between rows.  This technique can prepare and plant a full acre in less than half a day with only a few people.

This same equipment can also be used to create mounds and raised rows, which were also piloted during this project.  The rotary plow easily makes mounds when operated in a grid formation.  A regular tractor with plow as tiller to break ground greatly reduces labor, but the mounds may be formed simply with the walk-behind tractor with a tiller, rotary plow, and mower.  Managing mounds from year-to-year is more labor intensive and appears to require greater nutrient application.

Larger Scale Production

As outlined in the previous section, preparing ground for planting is a significant endeavor.  What if crops could be planted directly into perennial pasture?  This project experimented with no-till corn planting into pasture that was mowed and hayed.  Grasses were controlled by mowing in between rows.  Establishment was successful, but drought appears to have provided an additional complication for this approach where nutrients are clearly (and unsurprisingly) limited for corn uptake.  Despite challenges, this approach has worked with one particular variety of heritage Indigenous corn with unique growth aspects. 

Complimenting this no-till pilot, this project also planted corn, beans, and squash into plowed areas and then planted assorted cover crops.  This approach was much more successful for crop production while offering an opportunity to assess timing, cover crop mixtures, and other factors like cultivation and seed bed preparation for cover crops.  Basic conclusions are that timing for cover crop seeding is generally best about three weeks after corn planting, although factors like precipitation and weed pressure are context dependent.  Red and white clover both establish well, providing nitrogen fixation and biomass for soil health and grazing, which was also integrated for livestock and poultry.  Chicory, plantain, winter wheat, and radishes were also planted.  The winter wheat did not establish as well, and also seems to pull nutrients. From an integrated pest management standpoint, it's also important to note that pumpkins and squash also serve as a highly effective cover crop that can grow directly into corn.  It's impact on preventing animal damage to corn was inconclusive.

Jessika Greendeer Highlights

Conditions: Growing Indigenous seeds for seed reproduction using three growing systems. Identifying both invasive plants, insects, plant health and soil health in each growing system.
1) Mounds are cover cropped and mulched in the fall, no-till planting of seeds in the spring. Hose watered when needed.
2) Block planting area is cover cropped in the fall/green manure walkways dictated by grow plan in season, till and ridge planting of seeds in the spring, irrigated daily when needed.
3) Fixed raised beds in hugelkultur system, not cover cropped, but mulched with hay in fall and active weed barrier in growing season. Hose watered when needed.
One variety of corn, one variety of bean and cucurbita moschata in space 1; corn, bean, moschata and pepo in space 2; corn, bean, and pepo in space 3.
The growing spaces did not include cucurbita maxima to mitigate risk from squash vine borer and added labor needed to inspect and treat pests. Maxima varieties were replaced with both cucurbita pepo and cucurbita moschata varieties.
Corn root maggot beetle sighted.
Growing space 1: pests observed in space but did not lay eggs and stay in or on crops in garden.
Growing space 2:  Pests infested corn tassels and silks. Pests moved into garden space over the course of 48 hours. Population size prevented manual removal, sprayed with water added topical powder to plants. Added compost tea to soil. Some reduction in population, but still present after treatments. Pollination for corn was reduced due to pest removal treatments and habits of pest.
Growing space 3: pests visited space during scouting practices, pests did not stay in space.

Given observations during the last three seasons. Growing methods and practices from both mounds and raised bed systems will be expanded into larger growing systems. Will transition grow space 2 into grow space 1 field.

Greg Johnson Highlights

Growing efforts with Greg Johnson at Lac du Flambeau focused on smaller scale efforts using the walk-behind tractor in a variety of soil types in an area with a shorter growing season.  Plots had mixed success, which appeared to be largely based on soil nutrients since some sites were heavily sandy.  One of best benefits of the walk-behind tractor is the ability to access smaller sites and areas where a standard tractor would have difficulty accessing.  A relatively steep roadside proved to be a highly successful site, and the effort supported brand new growers, giving them basic support for growing for the very first time in a management format.  Additionally, this effort support construction of raised beds using Tribally-sourced lumber, allowing growth of a variety of crops including highly successful squash and bean areas.  Those raised beds are critical in areas with minimal soil nutrients.

Project Outcomes

8 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
4 Grants received that built upon this project
12 New working collaborations
Success stories:

An inspiring, if unintended, outcome of this project supported an Indigenous PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who faced challenges in limited field research capacity during the height of pandemic lockdowns in 2020.  In collaboration with Dan Cornelius, he was able to grow dozens of cover crop pilots interseeded into Indigenous corn, providing a research model that was then replicated at Ho-Chunk, Menominee, and Oneida in 2021 for research plots that are still ongoing.  Lessons from cover crop seeding have informed subsequent efforts, including in nutrient application necessary for supporting both Indigenous corn and cover crops.  Those pilots have been important in providing a foundation for subsequent grant applications and expanded partnerships.

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.