Unusual greenhouse pioneers techniques on Blackfeet Reservation


BROWNING, Mont. - No matter what it's doing outside, springtime is perpetual at the Blackfeet Community College's greenhouse.

Even at 5 degrees above zero, tribal herbalist Wilbert Fish says the temperature inside the school's oversized geodesic dome stays a balmy 46 degrees. It's rare that employees have to turn on the heater, even in the depths of winter.

The secret to the structure's success, Fish says, is that the dome is modeled after a traditional sweat lodge. Unlike conventional greenhouses, which are often shaped like a rectangle, the dome shape keeps warm air circulating. In fact, the coldest part of the dome's 42-foot-diameter space is in the center. With most other greenhouses, cold usually travels along the walls, he says.

"We know sweat lodges pretty well, how heat rises and travels around," Fish explains.

Perched on the east end of the school's Browning campus, the dome looks like an errant space station. But inside, earthly shrubs, flowers and food crops - all grown organically - quickly give away its purpose.

Fish, who also serves as the college's agricultural extension agent, helped coordinate the dome's creation in 1998 with the help of an advisory board of tribal and federal officials, including Joyce Lapp, a botanist with the National Park Service.

The group used the Internet to track down a consultant in England who specializes in building large domes. Actual construction was completed by students at the tribally controlled college.

One of the dome's unique features is its floor, which allows "the Earth's energy to come up from the ground and nourish the plants," Fish says. The sides are also unusual; they're made from a plastic polycarbonate that's tough as nails.

"You could throw a hammer at it and it would bounce back,"

Fish says.

Unlike glass, the material doesn't reflect the sun's ultraviolet rays and allows them to zing around inside. The entire structure was built for $63,000, or about $1 per square foot. It's specially built to withstand the area's high winds, which can easily reach more than 100 mph.

Funding for the project was provided by the National Park Service and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which both use plants from the greenhouse for restoration projects. Other sponsors include the Blackfeet Tribe, the Browning School District and Montana State University.

The list of plants grown at the facility is lengthy, and much of the work is experimental. Fish, his wife, Bonnie, and his sister, Sally, raise a variety of herbs, including comfry, wild licorice, spearmint and peppermint, mountain cicily, sarvis berries and echinacea. They also sprout Douglas fir, Western larch, lodgepole pine and spruce seedlings for various forestry programs.

About 8,000 echinacea plants currently in production may be sold to a Montana pharmaceutical firm, Fish says.

Thousands of native shrubs and grasses end up each year in nearby Glacier National Park.

The greenhouse crew also grows other food plants including corn, cucumbers, green beans, onions, parsley, chives, sweet basil and oregano and the plants are sold to the public.

Fish sees this as an integral way of promoting healthy diets.

They market cut flowers and various shrubs and have had unusual luck growing such things as gooseberry and huckleberry bushes, which are tough to cultivate.

Last year, the greenhouse even supplied sweetgrass to help the tribe revitalize overharvested areas on the Blackfeet Reservation. Buffalo grass, long a plant staple on the northern Great Plains, has been raised as well.

While the college helped subsidize the project in the past, Fish says he expects the operation to become self-sustaining next year. Then, he says, proceeds will be turned back to the college to help finance overall operations, now largely dependent on grants and other "soft" money.

Fish also wants to build a new nursery on campus so offerings can be expanded. A small worm farm may be enlarged, both for the creatures' nutrient-rich castings and possibly as an outlet for anglers, who come to the reservation from far and wide.

No artificial chemicals are used at the greenhouse, a factor that Fish contends is responsible for extraordinarily healthy plants and a disease-free past.

Fish emulsion and other natural fertilizers are a primary food for the plants and trees. Insects such as ladybugs are used to control pests.

In all, Fish says he thinks the operation is about 30 years ahead of similar projects.

"We're able to grow things no other greenhouse in the country could grow," he says with pride. He adds that he wants to use the program to train other tribal members about indoor horticulture, which he sees as another wave of the future. He'd also like to help others build their own greenhouses.

"My whole intent is to find jobs for our people and to restore our lands to a natural state," Fish says. "What we're trying to do is open the door so people see other alternatives."