Like many rural communities, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, a Mohican Indian tribe in north central Wisconsin, wanted to increase its access to fresh produce, but faced multiple barriers. The tribe’s 500 acres of farmland was depleted of nutrients and organic matter after years of improper management by previous tenants.
Adapted from an article first published on the SARE website.
Additionally, local gardeners and farmers lacked an understanding of the soil management practices that would improve fertility, such as taking and interpreting soil tests, making compost and using cover crops. Also, some community members were reluctant to grow produce because of the labor required to control weeds. Community members also lacked skills to extend growing seasons and safely preserve their harvests.
Stockbridge-Munsee Community agriculture agent Kellie Zahn had a vision for addressing those needs but needed financial support to translate her vision into reality.
That’s where Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE) came into the picture. Funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), SARE offers grants to farmers, ranchers, educators, researchers, graduate students and others for on-farm research, education, and professional and community development.
“One of the unique facets of SARE is that it offers grant opportunities to such a diverse applicant pool,” said NIFA National Program Leader Vance Owens. “SARE’s work is truly grassroots-driven and guided by regional SARE priorities. The beauty of a regionally directed program means that they can focus programs that are tailored to the needs of the communities and the region’s climate and environmental conditions.”
Funded by two SARE grants, new farmers as well existing farmers received hands-on training to improve the tribe’s ability to grow fresh produce.
“We had a number of people reach out wanting to grow vegetables for the first time or for the first time in a long time,” Zahn said.
Based at a community farm called “Keek-oche” in Mohican or “From the Earth” in English, Zahn and her collaborators organized events and demonstrations on soil testing, crop rotation, cover crops, composting and intercropping with the traditional “Three Sisters” of corn, beans and squash.
They made weed management a focus as well. Zahn showed community members how to adopt effective tools such as flame weeding, landscape fabrics and mulches. Other demonstrations showed how to extend the growing season by using low tunnels and by starting seeds indoors with simple pots made of newspaper. Food preservation, composting, beekeeping and promoting beneficial insects were other topics they addressed.
They collected data on crop yield from the demonstration farm and on sales at the local farmers’ market to help small-scale growers assess the profit potential of selling produce within the community.
Zahn said that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community’s food sovereignty committee is happy with the team’s progress and is eager to see it continue. Specific impacts include:
- Sharing new information: The project team reached more than 200 farmers through workshops and online events. They also produced a series of fact sheets and videos throughout the project to supplement their events.
- Increased farmer knowledge: More than 50 farmers reported that they learned something new in the areas of soil health, weed management, vegetable production, beekeeping and Indigenous farming techniques.
- Leveraged funding: The project team has received five new grants to continue their food security work in the community.
Photo: Variety of root garden vegetables such as carrot, garlic, purple onion, beetroot, parsnip and celery with tops over black texture background. Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.