Food sovereignty starts from the ground up

By Kris Berggren

A thriving garden on the Red Lake Reservation is producing abundant fresh food for the band’s members and is positioned to become a cornerstone of its eventual food sovereignty.

The Gitigaanike Training Garden, now in its third year, is a project of 4-Directions Development (4DD), formerly called the Red Lake Entrepreneur Program. The project grew from meetings conducted by tribal leadership where access to affordable, healthy food emerged as a top concern.

“The mission was created with goals to help decrease diet-related health issues, increase access to local healthy foods, and develop the local foods economy,” said 4DD Foods Coordinator Michael Van Horn. “Food localization results in a stronger sustainable economy and increases civic engagement.”

Local entrepreneurship, including the garden, is supported through 4DD, the Red Lake Nation’s Economic Development and Planning Department, and strong local partners.

Gitigaanike means “raising a garden” or “helping something grow.” And literally, big plans for food sovereignty are growing from the ground up with three acres in Redby and 16 acres at the Red Lake Farms; all tended this year by five staff and eight seasonal workers.

The wide variety of plants range from cover crops such as red clover that will be tilled to improve the soil profile; typical summer garden produce like tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and leafy greens; to a traditional three sisters garden (corn, squash and beans grown symbiotically). There are bees and strawberries, and two orchards of fruit trees. A high tunnel and greenhouse extend the growing season. The emphasis is on non-GMO, organically grown food using methods that support wise use of land and water resources.

There’s a training garden where novices learn skills and use different tools and techniques with many different plants. The idea is that the experience will spark individuals to start their own specialized gardens or a related food enterprise. But there’s another benefit, said 4DD Executive Director Sharon James, who also directs the garden project. She has observed the powerful spiritual and emotional connections for those working the land, nurturing plants and harvesting food for their family and community.

“As you’re growing these plants you are seeing yourself accomplish something,” James explained. “It really makes a difference as far as uplifting people.”

“It’s that connection with Mother Earth,” Van Horn added.

A small core group of new gardeners will be chosen annually through an application process, James said. Once someone has a vision for their own garden or small business, 4DD provides training to complete a business plan and apply for financing for items such as a water system, equipment and supplies. (Land on the reservation is collectively owned by members, and available at no cost with the council’s approval of a land use permit.)

One entrepreneur from the urban community has moved back to the reservation to start a chicken farm, hoping to supply fresh, organic eggs directly to consumers as well as institutions such as the casino and the school.

James said tribal policy is an important strategy to encourage institutional buyers to “buy local, buy Indian,” thereby keeping capital within the community. “We were able to have a purchasing preference approved for local entrepreneurs.  The Tribe supports buying from local businesses if they are within 10 percent of an outside vendor’s price and can supply what is needed.”

James is grateful for the support of their many funders including USDA, Minnesota’s Department of Economic Development (DEED) and First Nations Development.

Next projects could include aquaponics, hydroponics, or a winter greenhouse. There is discussion about a farm incubator, a small training farm similar to the training garden, where budding entrepreneurs could learn and test their ideas. A commercial kitchen is being developed.

The annual Red Lake Food Summit held in mid-September brings the community together to inspire a healthy lifestyle, and to make sure Red Lake members know what Gitigaanike offers – and what the future could hold for their food sovereignty.

Indigenous chefs will prepare meals and demonstrate traditional foods and offer sessions on traditional and contemporary methods of farming.  Day two features food demos and sampling such as how to process wild rice, smoke fish, snare a rabbit, or forage for edible plants, and this year, an obstacle course to promote exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle.

“The education piece is really key to connecting with the community and making them aware. Even the traditional foods, a lot of our young people don’t know how to gather anymore. Education is important for successful continuation of our program and our food sovereignty,” James said.