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Food Sovereignty: How Osage People Will Grow Fresh Foods Locally

Growing fresh and local foods for Osage people is now a revived approach to food sovereignty for the Osage Nation so efforts to find the most successful methods are being looked into by leadership and community members. On Feb. 7,the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture along with the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology Okmulgee hosted the eighth annual workshop for ‘plasticulture’ farming workshops.

Assistant Principal Chief Raymond RedCorn, communities of excellence director Gail Boe, Jacqueline Boulanger, Osage County Farmers Market, and Osage Nation Ta-Wa AmeriCorps member Bruce Tiger were in attendance for the Osage Nation at the workshop.

“We are going to try and do some of the plasticulture farming to cut down on manual labor, for water conservation, and to reduce the amount of weeds,” said Boe who is also on the Bird Creek Farms Steering committee.

Acres of land in Pawhuska were discovered by the new executive administration following an audit of the Nation’s land holdings, and the land has since been designated as a site for several resource development needs including Bird Creek Farms.

“We have two and half acres set aside for corn, two and a half acres set aside for pumpkin, one point eight acres for a collective garden, and another one point eight acres for the community garden,” said Boe about the still working design of the farm. “We just improved our plans to incorporate an elder component so there are box gardens for elders to use and a youth area for any of our family services programs to use with their clients. Programs like Social Services can have an acre to work with their families.”

Finding successful methods and trial error are expected to be part of this new process. “Our first year will really be about numbers, the number of volunteers we have, the number of participants in the community garden, how much [produce] we can yield, and what methods are working,” said Boe.

Addressing the large group of attendees, Clif Slade, presenter and plasticulture farmer said, “What is ‘Plasticulture?’It means early production, better quality, and increased yields for $500 an acre.” 

Slade has worked as a vegetable and produce specialist out of Virginia State University with their Small Farm Outreach Program. He provided valuable information about plasticulture by the numbers. In 2013, he started the ‘43,560 Intiative.’ There are exactly 43,560 feet in an acre and the initiative demonstrates a farmer’s ability to gross one dollar per square foot.

Several current plasticulture farmers made up the majority of the audience, according to Ashley Bender, Market Development Coordinator for the Oklahoma State Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. 

The state has a plasticulture program and grant program at the OSU extension in Okmulgee. The state defines plasticulture as a, “farming technique that creates raised soil beds covered with plastic sheeting and equipped with irrigation drip lines laid directly under the plastic. Vegetable seedlings are planted in holes punched through the plastic.”

About the plasticulture grant, Bender said, “[the grant] is $500 per individual per year for three years and that goes towards a reimbursement for seeds, fertilizer and fencing. We also provide all the plastic and set-up.” Other guidelines apply such as the farmer must sell at least half of their produce yield.

The grants are for individual farmers only. But support for local and fresh foods is a goal for the state, said Bender, and for a tribe the state would provide a demonstration about setting up plasticulture farming.

Bruce Tiger, ON AmeriCorps member, said he enjoyed attending and learning about plasticulture. Tiger is a local farmer from the Fairfax area. He grows okra, squash, and tomatoes on his mother’s land. “I’ve never heard of this type of farming, but I’m looking forward to working with [plasticulture], and I think it will work for our tribe.” 

On whether he planned on using plasticulture on his own plants, Tiger said, “strawberries, I plan on trying to grow some strawberries with it.”

The Buzz on Bees

“Bees, oh yes, we have to have bees,” said Boe who is coordinating plans for Bird Creek Farms. “[The Nation] has to have bees in order to make this a successful farm. We need at least two hives to have a good produce yield.”

According to Slade a single beehive hive can increase the yield of a crop by one third on an acre of land and plant quality and taste is also affected by bees. He also promoted the health benefits of having beehives saying that the honey from local bees when ingested can help the body adjust to local pollens and alleviate allergies. 

Providing local honey in addition to corn, squash and pumpkins is something the Nation is considering, said Boe who added that this would mean a beekeeper would need to be hired to take care of the hives.

“You can’t have one without the other, that’s just the way it is,” said Slade about bees and farms. He also warned against using pesticides, another reason plasticulture is ideal because bees will not go where there are pesticides. But, he added, for organic farmers bee pollination is the best method.

“We are working with a pollination expert through the [United States Department of Agriculture] to make sure we have sufficient pollinators available,” said RedCorn, and added, “bees are a part of what makes a healthy garden and there are varieties of seedless watermelons that won’t grow without the pollinators.”

Years One, Two, Three and Sovereignty

Boe said she left the workshop with more information than she anticipated and appreciated the information on farming logistics. “I learned that if you take a systematic approach to farming there is a ton of food you can grow on just one acre of land.”

Farm prep is already underway and the Bird Creek land is scheduled for a routine controlled burn by Osage Nation emergency management services on Feb. 10 and will continue over the next two weeks.

By the end of year one, the Nation is scheduled to complete two small cornfields. RedCorn said plans include cultural preservation classes on Osage corn and other Osage heirloom seeds and traditional methods of food preservation. During years one and two of the farming project the Nation will provide harvested produce to elder and youth services as well as for other tribal members for traditional purposes like family dinners, hand games, and other gatherings.

“It will be [during] year three when we will have an idea of Bird Creek Farms’ potential,” said RedCorn.

About the importance providing cultural farming classes and lectures RedCorn said, “there still remains a firm group of Osage individuals my age and older who grew up drying corn by hand…overall, there are very few around who have had that experience.”

He added that Bird Creek Farms is about two things, “food security and food sovereignty…the Osage methods of food preservation process is about food security and food sovereignty. Our heirloom seeds are an expression of food sovereignty. Food Security is the Osage Nation Government doing what we did a hundred years ago to feed ourselves.”

To volunteer or to participate at Osage Nation Bird Creek Farms call Osage Nation Communities of Excellence, (918) 287-5267 and on the web at OsageNation-nsn.gov.