Reuniting the Three Sisters: Native American Intercropping and Soil Health

Progress report for LNC19-422

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $200,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Christina Gish Hill
Iowa State University
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Project Information

Summary:

This project documents cultural and agronomic underpinnings of Three Sisters intercropping (3SI), with the overall objective of collaborating with Native gardeners to begin a 3SI research and education plot at Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station. Our central hypothesis is that working in collaboration with Native people to use their cultural knowledge of 3SI to design current gardening systems will result in improved yields and soil heath. Our rationale is that by working collaboratively with Native gardeners, our research will provide evidence for the socio-cultural, nutritional, and agroecological benefits of rejuvenating Native agriculture. Our specific objectives are to:

1) Assess the cultural, nutritional, and agricultural importance of 3SI among 5 Native American communities. To accomplish this objective, we will use interviews, community surveys, and evaluations of geographic food availability to explore the impacts of revitalizing the practice.

2) Engage Native gardeners/farmers through citizen science. To accomplish this objective, we will advance our current collaborations with Native gardeners to collect soil and crop data from their own Three Sisters gardens.

3) Evaluate the effects of 3SI on crop yield and soil health. To accomplish this objective, we will use citizen science data collected in Objective 2 and establish a collaborative long-term 3SI research and education plot at Iowa State University, designed with direct input from Native gardeners. 

Learning outcomes will include increased awareness of the cultural, nutritional and agroecological value of 3SI to Native communities.  Native participants will gain deeper knowledge of soil health and the skills to test their soil. Action outcomes include improved agroecological practices for soil health. Participants will take soil tests and implement the soil based on the results.

Project Objectives:

Learning outcomes will include:

1) increased awareness of the practice of 3SI and its historical, cultural, and nutritional value to the community.

2) deeper knowledge of soil health, the connection to nutrition, and the skills to test their soil.

Action outcomes will include:

1) broaden and deepen community engagement with personal and community gardening (via learning outcome 1).

2) improved agroecological practices that promote soil health through learning outcome

3). Long term action outcomes of our collaborations include developing improved strategies for 3SI to increase the sustainability of Native communities and greater cooperation among ISU and Native communities and partners.

Introduction:

Reuniting the Three Sisters explores the cultural and agronomic underpinnings of the Native American practice of intercropping corn/maize (Zea mays), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squash (Cucurbita moschata)—colloquially called the Three Sisters. Because Native American communities in the Midwest have limited access to healthy, fresh foods, Native growers have established community gardens to incorporate culturally appropriate Indigenous growing practices, including the Three Sisters, to build community and improve health. Yet, support systems for these gardens remains inadequate. Thus, there is a critical need to determine the production barriers that Native gardeners experience and design research that demonstrates ways to improve soil/plant/human health. Without such knowledge, developing culturally appropriate agronomic strategies to help increase community gardening in Native communities will remain stymied.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Laura Manthe
  • Jessika Greendeer
  • Hank Miller

Research

Hypothesis:

This project documents cultural and agronomic underpinnings of Three Sisters intercropping (3SI), with the overall objective of collaborating with Native gardeners to begin a 3SI research and education plot at Iowa State University’s Horticulture Research Station. Our central hypothesis is that working in collaboration with Native people to use their cultural knowledge of 3SI to design current gardening systems will result in improved yields and soil heath. Our rationale is that by working collaboratively with Native gardeners, our research will provide evidence for the socio-cultural, nutritional, and agroecological benefits of rejuvenating Native agriculture. Our specific objectives are to:

1) Assess the cultural, nutritional, and agricultural importance of 3SI among 5 Native American communities. To accomplish this objective, we will use interviews, community surveys, and evaluations of geographic food availability to explore the impacts of revitalizing the practice.

2) Engage Native gardeners/farmers through citizen science. To accomplish this objective, we will advance our current collaborations with Native gardeners to collect soil and crop data from their own Three Sisters gardens.

3) Evaluate the effects of 3SI on crop yield and soil health. To accomplish this objective, we will use citizen science data collected in Objective 2 and establish a collaborative long-term 3SI research and education plot at Iowa State University, designed with direct input from Native gardeners. 

Learning outcomes will include increased awareness of the cultural, nutritional and agroecological value of 3SI to Native communities.  Native participants will gain deeper knowledge of soil health and the skills to test their soil. Action outcomes include improved agroecological practices for soil health. Participants will take soil tests and implement the soil based on the results.

Materials and methods:

The team for this project, Reuniting the Three Sisters, has been building relationships with gardener/farmers from the Omaha, Oneida, Ho-Chunk, and Meskwaki nations and Minneapolis’s Native community using two internal Iowa State University (ISU) grants, the Bridging the Divide grant and LAS Social Science research grant. They provided us with the funding to travel to communities to build relationships and collaboratively design our research plan. We will finalize our research plan at a meeting of gardener/farmers from each community in April 2018. We have solid commitments from twelve farmer/gardeners, including both farms and independent gardeners at Oneida, Jesskia Greendeer, an independent gardener at Ho-Chunk, and the Nebraska Indian College which serves the Omaha nation, the Santee nation, and the Sioux City urban community. The directors of Red Earth Gardens in Meskwaki have recently changed, so we are in the process of finalizing their commitment. We have met with Red Earth directors twice and have been in regular email contact. We are waiting to hear from them. During preliminary interviews, Native farmer/gardeners described concerns about sustaining soil health, weed management, irrigation, and the connection between soil health and community nutrition. At our annual advisory board meeting of the research team and Native growers, collaboratively we decide on 3SI practices to be carried out at a potential long-term ISU research experiment, and satellite citizen science plots in each communities.

The centralized ISU research and education/extension experiment and the satellite plots on Native community gardens will complement each other. We began citizen science soil testing in each community spring of 2018 and traveled to each community in 2019 to take soil samples. We attempted to collect samples from growers during 2020 through the mail. We have also developed the ‘main’ experiment at the ISU Horticulture Research Station--2020 was our first growing season. We collected the same data at each and held extension events at the ‘main’ experiment in 2020 because we were not allowed to travel. We hope to hold events at each community in 2021.  Through ethnography, interviews, and listening sessions, Native gardener/farmers have collaborated to identify appropriate varieties to plant at all locations, planting techniques, the experimental design, and help to develop the list of soil and plant response data that will be measured at the ‘main’ and ‘satellite’ 3SI sites.  All sites will be randomized, replicated complete block design with four treatments– three treatments of each 3SI crop planted individually [sweet corn (Zea mays), common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), and squash (Cucurbita moschata)], and a fourth treatment with all three planted together. In 2020, three growers were able to grow these research plots, much less than our expected number because most growers were using all available space for food as a result of the pandemic. In 2020, our team designed a ‘do-it-yourself’ soil health kit for Native farmers to analyze the effect of 3SI on soil health.  We also provided laboratory tests of plant available nutrients and selected soil health properties.  The data generated from ‘main’ and ‘satellite’ 3SI sites will be collated, synthesized in short reports, and discussed with Native farmer/gardeners.  Our team is in regular touch with each on-farm collaborator to provide assistance for plot establishment and data collection. ISU Horticulture Research Station staff helped with the maintenance of the main experiment.

Our specific objectives are: 1) Assess the cultural, nutritional, and agricultural importance of Three Sisters Intercropping (3SI) to several Native American communities in the Midwest.

Drs. Gish Hill and Winham lead this objective which considers the decision-making process involved in revitalizing Indigenous agricultural practices, including use of cultural knowledge to determine varieties and growing practices, food preparation, and consumption of agricultural products, asking critical questions related to the sociocultural, agronomic, and nutritional reasons behind 3SI. We use ethnography, interviews, and surveys to demonstrate the sociocultural importance of 3SI for Native communities. Ethnography involve visits to each community each year, as well as email and phone conversations with participants to ask about their gardens, the cultural importance of the practice, the techniques they use, their concerns over soil health, and other barriers to successful production. We were not able to travel to sites in person during 2020, but conducted interviews over zoom and webex. These conversations were recorded with permission, either on a digital audio recorder or as written notes by the PI, Dr. Gish Hill. Student research assistants and PIs have conducted informal interviews while visiting gardeners to introduce and demonstrate the use of the soil test because valuable information could be offered during these visits in 2019, but were not able to in 2020.

The primary technique of ethnography requires participant observation. This methodology acquires data through careful observation while spending time in a community, getting to know its members, and learning about cultural practices by watching and participating when asked. The technique helps the researcher gain in-depth cultural knowledge because active engagement helps build trust between participants and researchers. Interviewing is also a central technique associated with ethnography. This project will use the snowball sampling technique to recruit participants to interview and survey. A snowball sample involves approaching knowledgeable and prominent members of a community, introducing the research, and, once community members are engaged in the project, asking them to introduce the project to others who would be interested in participating. When the researcher brings new participants to the project, he or she asks them to suggest other potential participants. In this way, the researcher’s potential group of interviewees “snowballs.” We have contacts in each community who are in the position to introduce us to several potential participants who are knowledgeable about 3SI. We will conduct interviews with these participants as we are introduced.

The ethnographic research results in survey data, hours of digital recordings of interviews, and field notes. The interview recordings will be transcribed and then coded by hand and entered into NVivo. Hand coding and NVivo will classify, sort, and arrange the data, look for themes, examine relationships between the data, and identify trends. We will also return transcriptions to interviewees for feedback and to potentially provider deeper insight into the initial interviews. We will process the surveys using these methods as well as statistical analysis. We will compare the data we acquire with historical material in order to understand possible changes in the practice of 3SI over time. This analysis will provide information about the social and cultural understandings surrounding 3SI in the Native communities.

To evaluate the available food environment with a focus on the Three Sisters and other traditional foods, Dr. Winham and a trained undergraduate researcher will assess retail food stores, farmers’ markets, and food pantries on and within a 20-mile radius of each Native nation. We will initially use the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey for Stores (NEMS-S) to guide development of an ethnic-specific modification based on two of our partner Nations. Price comparisons for standard staples from the NEMS-S and traditional foods will be compared across locations. We have previously developed a Latino ethnic store instrument for the Midwest and will apply our experiences from that. Our analysis will include relevant access details such as distance to stores from representative community clusters, food costs, and food quality, e.g., freshness of produce. As we build rapport with community members, we will directly explore qualitative views toward food insecurity and food access. In our first two years, our assessments will be “noninvasive” and will focus on the built environment. We will utilize publicly available statistics on food insecurity, food deserts, and epidemiological statistics for tribal member health. Our food environment findings on accessibility, availability, and affordability of healthy foods will be reported to the community as the research evolves, to invite input on our research plan. The nutrition environment measures will generate descriptive statistics on the frequencies of food accessibility, availability, and affordability within reservation food outlets and those in a 20-mile radius of reservation boundaries. The original NEMS-S rating will be compared with that of the Native American NEMS-S using paired t-tests to measure the difference in scores for each store. These findings will quantify the presence or absence of food deserts, traditional foods, and pricing differentials for healthy foods by market source.

2) Engage Native gardeners/farmers through citizen science

Dr. Nair leads this objective and organizes on-farm visits and sets up local focus group meetings and listening sessions to discuss the progress of the project. To accomplish this objective we have conducted extension events and dialogue with Native farmers to develop their own individual randomized-replicated 3SI experiments. These experiments test the effect of monocropped maize, beans, squash, and compare to when they are planted together as 3SI. Using funding from an internal ISU grant, we have held one meeting in April 2018 with gardener/farmers from each of these communities and discussed the experimental plots during this meeting. Continuing visits to each community and discussions have strengthened relationships and fostered trust between ISU researchers and leaders and members of Native communities. On-farm visits to randomized-replicated 3SI experiments on grower/gardener plots allow the team to effectively communicate with Native gardeners and local community leaders and disseminate information regarding crop rotation, soil fertility, integrated pest management strategies, and long-term soil quality and health. These listening sessions facilitate discussions and create opportunities for further understanding and development of 3SI cropping systems.

We have developed  activities and products in collaboration with Native gardener/farmers that are culturally relevant materials for sharing agro-ecological knowledge, including materials about the importance of soil health, soil fertility, crop rotation, and how 3SI could play a key role in keeping soil healthy and in creating sustainable cropping systems in Native communities. We will also distribute two surveys, one early in the study after we have gained the trust of the participants in each community, and the other in the fall of the final year. The first will gather data about the successes and barriers faced by gardeners in growing 3SI and the perceived needs growers have related to improving their practices. The second will provide participants the opportunity to reflect on the process of soil health testing and discuss plans for the future. Covid has made this impossible during our first field season, but we hope to try again in 2021.

3) To determine the effects of 3SI crop yield, growth, and soil health.

Drs. McDaniel and Nair co-lead this objective. Drs. McDaniel and Nair have set a replicated randomized complete block design with each block replicated four times at the Horticulture Research Station in Ames, Iowa. Treatmentsinclude monoculture sweet corn, monoculture common beans, monoculture squash, and intercropping of sweet corn/common beans/squash. Monoculture plots are 9 m (30’) x 9 m, whereas the intercrop lot are 12 m (40’) x 9 m. We take advice on varieties used at the ISU 3SI plot from our advisory board made of members from each community in collaboration with Native gardener/farmers and their communities.  Data will be collected on stand establishment, weed population, weed suppression, crop growth [flowering, plant height, indirect measurement of chlorophyll (SPAD readings), and plant biomass], yield, and quality. We allow more flexibility to our collaborator farms/gardens and give them the option of fitting this experimental design into their existing practices, including size, number of replicates, and varieties used by their communities. Dr. McDaniel leads the soil health initiative and measure how 3SI affects soil health at the ISU plot and several small farms run by Native American communities. We use a combination of traditional soil health measurements and a novel, inexpensive, yet scientifically robust soil health indicator that engages Native communities in citizen science. The combination of these two approaches help us determine the effect of intercropping on soil health. Furthermore, by engaging Native communities in setting up on-farm trials and soil data collection, we hope to encourage and engage cultural links to traditional agriculture practices and promote sustainability.

Research results and discussion:

For the 2020 field season:

1) Assess the cultural, nutritional, and agricultural importance of Three Sisters Intercropping (3SI) to several Native American communities in the Midwest.

      We conducted 12 interviews with Native growers in participating communities over video chat in the summer of 2020. Preliminary analysis of these interviews reveal multiple insights into the cultural, nutritional, and agricultural importance of Three Sisters agriculture to each community.  Team member Kapayou pilot tested the Nutrition Environment measures survey for applicability to the Native American setting and for ease of use by non-nutrition specialists in order to begin the nutritional assessment.

2) Engage Native gardeners/farmers through citizen science 

        We designed a plot layout guide to be used by the ISU team and the collaborator Native communities.  This guide described in detail how one could go about laying out a (3-SIP) research block in their own community.  We made several different versions of this plot layout guide, which had to be tailored to collaborator gardener specifications in some instances. We also compiled a seed placement and time-to-plant guide.  This guide included detailed schemas and measurements for gardens incorporating garden mounds. We wrote a soil sampling guide for collaborator gardener use. We collected soil samples from our participating Native gardeners and returned the results of the testing to them, explaining the results, answering questions, and making suggestions for soil amendments when asked. We hoped to collect a second round of soil samples at the end of the season, but all three of our farmers struggled to keep their plots going for various reasons all Covid related. Each of these farmers will be growing next year and we are recruiting several others as well. We hope for a better growing season to attain data. We also began working on a “Soil Health Kit Manual” to be used by our collaborator Native gardeners. This will be launched during the 2021 field season.

3) To determine the effects of 3SI crop yield, growth, and soil health. 

          2020 was a difficult growing season both for Native growers and for the ISU research plots. Covid delayed the planting, so we were late on planting. We also suffered a massive derecho that destroyed most of the plants in our plots. Despite these challenges, we collected soil samples and as much plant and yield data as possible. We are conducting statistical analysis of data collected from the (3-SIP) garden maintained by ISU.  We plan to compile this data into a comprehensive package to be used in discussions with various collaborators and within the ISU team. Because of these issues, any data we collected is preliminary. We have also secured permission from our collaborator Native gardeners to conduct DNA analysis on our (3-SIP) garden soils, as well as communicated with our UW-Madison collaborator about this analysis. We hope to conduct the analysis in 2021.

Research conclusions:

This is an on-going research project. We do not yet have conclusions or recommendations.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

Our educational approach is collaborative. We work with the Native growers on the project to develop research procedures, workshop topics, and educational materials. 

Given the pandemic our team had to curtail many of the proposed activities such as on-farm demonstration trials, in-person trainings, community visits, and focus group meetings. Our team was able to host an Advisory panel meeting in February 2020 that facilitated discussions with regard to our research plots at the Horticulture Research Station, extension and outreach activities, and overall implementation of the project in collaboration with regional partners.  

As part of our extension activitwe reached out to our partners and stakeholders to obtain ideas and suggestions to develop virtual workshops and educational events. Our team pivoted to online mode of outreach utilizing Zoom and WebEx for sharing culturally relevant agro-ecological knowledge, including materials about the importance of soil health, soil fertility, crop rotation, and how 3SI could play a key role in keeping soil healthy and in creating sustainable cropping systems in Native communities. Based on the needs assessment, our team organized two Virtual Workshops (7 August and 30 October, 2020) to cater to native gardeners and community leaders in the Native American communities in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The virtual workshops covered following topics: 

  1. Soil fertility and health in home gardens 
  1. How to set up drip irrigation 
  1. Seed saving for home gardener 
  1. DIY Soil Health Tests 
  1. Key insect pests of squash, beans, and corn  
  1. Basics and troubleshooting of composting 

Both workshops had 15-25 participants and had an engaging Q&A session. Below are learning and action outcomes from our workshops: 

  1. Participants learned about several IPM tools and techniques  
  1. Specific and detailed information on soil health indicators and DIY soil health kits 
  1. Participants received information on creating high value and quality compost in their backyards and several troubleshooting methods for proper composting 
  1. In addition to participants engaging with subject matter specialists, both workshops created a platform for peer-to-peer learning  

Participants gained relevant information on above mentioned topics and had an opportunity to ask gardening related questions. Our team gathered valuable insights on gardening practices in communities. We received excellent feedback from our workshops which is helping us develop materials and educational tools for future virtual and in-person workshops and community engagement events.  

Future activities: 

Our team is planning on hosting few virtual workshops this summer and as travel restrictions ease and communities feel safe to open, we will visit native communities for hands-on workshops and field activities. Our project will also be setting on-farm trial gardens in collaboration with native gardeners and will host field days to share and demonstrate information generated from those trial gardens. We also plan on visiting native communities to conduct focus group meetings with respect to their gardening needs and requirements. These visits also help our team understand and appreciate the culture, heritage, traditions, and connections these communities have with their plants, people, and soil.  

Project Activities

Plot Layout Guide
seed placement and time-to-plant guide
DIY soil test kit manual
Returning the “Three Sisters”—Corn, Beans, and Squash—to Native American Farms Nourishes People, Land, and Cultures. The Conversation, Nov. 20, 2020.
Can Traditional Ecological Knowledge Be Integrated Into Modern Cropping Systems to Enhance Soil and Water Conservation (with Derrick Kapayou and Marshall McDaniel). Getting Into Soil and Water, 2020 edition.
Reuniting the Three Sisters: Collaborative science with Native growers to improve soil and community health, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
“Collaborative science with Native farmers can overcome barriers to Improve soil and community health.” (Poster) Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, La Crosse, WI.
“Reuniting the Three Sisters: Using Indigenous Methodologies to Learn More About Three Sisters Intercropping,” (with Derrick Kapayou) Indigenous Perspectives on Water and Conservation Workshop, The Current Webinar Series, North Central Region Water Network, Madison, WI, on-line.
Advisory Board Meeting
Tour of the Plant Intro Station in Ames Iowa
Three Sisters On-line Workshop One
Three Sisters On-line Workshop Two

Educational & Outreach Activities

15 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings
4 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
4 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Advisory board meeting to share our research with Native collaborators, work collaboratively with them to design our research trajectory, and learn about the agronomic and sustainability needs in their communities.

Participation Summary:

33 Farmers
6 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Informal conversations with growers

DIY Soil Health Manual

Soil Health Videos--one on-line training now.

Working on a journal article. Only had one season of data.

Planning on-farm demonstrations

Press articles

Advisory board meeting, hort farm tour, and Plant Intro Station tour

2 webinar workshops 

2 presentations

Learning Outcomes

20 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
2 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • irrigation
  • Composting
  • Pest management
  • Seed saving
  • Soil health

Project Outcomes

2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Key practices changed:
  • Three sisters intercropping

2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

Two Native farmers, one in Wisconsin and one in Nebraska, had not tried to grow three sisters intercropped before

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.