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Meskwaki food, garden project taking root

August 26, 2014
By John Speer - Editor ( , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

There's bell peppers almost the size of softballs, purple string beans and sweet corn. dill, beets, cucumbers and summer squash. kohlrabi, kale,sprouting broccoli, okra, tomatoes and egg plant.

Just about anything that will grow in an Iowa garden.

It's the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative and Red Earth Gardens.

Article Photos

Jennifer Vazquez, Meskwaki Local Foods Planner and Red Earth Gardens Farm manager (left) and Laura Kleiman, Local Foods coordinator, display some of a recent day’s harvest from the red earth Gardens on the Meskwaki Settlement.

News-Herald photos/John Speer

Jennifer Vazquez is the Local Foods Planner and Red Earth Gardens Farm manager.

With Laura Kleiman, Local Foods coordinator, they oversee and work hands-on daily through the growing season, now in it's third year on the Meskwaki Settlement west of Tama-Toledo.

If you live in the area you may have purchased produce from their "farm stand" on wheels which is set up on Thursdays at the Meskwaki Trading Post and on Friday nights at the Toledo Farmers Market.

What they're doing in the program is much more broad.

"The Tribe was looking for more involvement in the local food system back in 2011," Vazquez says. This was to serve the dual purpose of community and economic development.

"We love it," and admit to being "really excited" - that's the reaction of sisters Dalonda and Delinda Pushetonequa. Their family is one of 10 who have really embraced the program by purchasing a share. They say they have encouraged extended family members to take part as well.

They enjoy benefits of receiving a weekly assortment of seasonable vegetables which are organically grown and the resulting health benefits.

"It's a lot fresher being picked that day," they say of the assortment of vegetables they're received this season. Dalonda admits to having experienced some new produce such as kohlrabi which she'd never eaten before.

"We've promoted healthy eating to other community members as the program is intended," they said.

The family is also one of 210 who have a family garden plot at the Red Earth Gardens and grow their own produce as well.

The sisters also point to the money savings over purchasing organic vegetables in stores.

They also said the courses in food preparation and preservation have been valuable. They said they had never canned fresh produce before but have learned the techniques through the initiative.

In 2012, Vazquez says a strategic plan for the project was developed based upon a survey, Tribal Council interest and "tons of feedback."

"We made sure the Initiative was doing what the community wants us to do," she said.

Included are cooking demonstrations, seed saving - most of the plants are heirloom variety and include native edible plants.

What resulted is the 40-acre Red Earth Gardens and the larger "South Farm" which is home to the Tribe's 107-head cultural Bison herd and well as other farm activities.

Tribal members can purchase the "shares" in the TSA - Tribally Supported Agriculture - as the Pushetonequa sisters family has- and in turn, receive a box of produce each week through the rowing season. The share money is used by the farmers to buy seeds and growing supplies.

The gardening program reaches out from the very young to the elderly. The Red Earth Gardens family plots are seen as an "incubator for develop-ing future farmers," Vasquez says.

Students at the Meskwaki Settlement School are actively engaged in planting and harvesting their own garden there. The produce is served in the school cafeteria.

A Food and Culture Education Program "Integrates organic and sustainable agriculture with Meskwaki values," Vasquez says. One demonstration was a maple syrup "camp" which included proper tree identification, tapping the trees, collecting cap and boiling in to create syrup.

A community garden at the Meskwaki Senior Center features 25 garden spots where elders grow mainly traditional foods including corn, beans and squash which are all donated fo senior center meals.

The Initiative is partnered with the Meskwaki Health Clinic, too. There's a 15-week study underway involving five families and a healthy diet aimed at diabetes control.

Some of the other "share" benefits include weekly news letter, enjoy group meals, take part in work days entitling them to refunds on share costs and a Harvest Meal Celebration.

The program is an AmeriCorps-VISTA host site and four to six VISTA volunteers spend up to a year working there.

It is intended to have Red Earth Gardens certified as an organic produce farm as soon as the criteria for being free of the use of no non-organic materials applied over a three-year period is met.

In addition to the foods program, a portion of the 40 acre farm is dedicated to production of organic hay.

Here are bios of some of those involved in the Meskwaki projects:

Laura Kleiman- Local Foods Coordinator- Laura is originally from upstate New York but has lived in Iowa since 2011 when she began graduate school at Iowa State University. She received a Master's degree in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology in 2013 and began working for the Tribe in February of 2014. She has been working on farms and growing food since she was 14 years old. Her focus in school was on local food systems in Iowa and she has worked with American Indian tribes in the past, working on the Settlement has been a dream job for Laura!

Bryant Bear- Farm Worker- Ho-ta! Bryant likes what he does and hopes more people will get involved in the Tribe's interest of becoming "food sovereign" (Google it). This is his second year with the farm and he hopes to break his back day-in and day-out for the Tribe. After attending the First Nations' L.E.A.D. Institute Conference, Bryant wrote his reflections on it which can be found in the Meskwaki Nation Times.

Jerry Young Bear Jr. - Community Organizer- Jerry comes from Harvey Lasley, Eagle Clan Leader, on his mother's side, and Kenneth Young Bear, Bear Clan Leader, on his father's side. He grew up on the Settlement and in the garden, growing corn his whole life. When he bought a tractor in 2002, he began tilling gardens for community members to start their own garden. Jerry was active in the community and the garden, a one year grant allowed him to work doing both, helping the community grow healthy, local foods. As the Community Organizer, he helps community members access land and seeds by managing the Community Garden and coordinating the Seed and Transplant Giveaway. In order to ensure enough Indian corn seed is available, Jerry plants an Indian corn seed plot for the sole purpose of harvesting the seed to distribute to community members. With a 380 x 130 foot plot of corn, and 96 hills of beans, there should be enough to distribute this next year. He is committed to keeping the native varieties of corn and beans alive, "Everything is related to Mother Earth. A good way to spread positive vibrations is through spreading the seed."

Jennifer Vazquez- Farm Manager & Local Foods Planner- Jennifer grew up in a military family and moved every few years as a kid. In 2002, she moved to northern Wisconsin to stay put for a while, go to college and as luck would have it, realize her love of farming with her first farm internship on the shores of Gitchigummi (Lake Superior) in 2003. Ever since many of her work experiences have revolved around agriculture and community development. She's worked on farms large and small, for non-profits, for different tribal organizations, research groups and for many small business owners. She moved to Iowa almost 5 years ago to attend graduate school at ISU where her graduate research focused on food sovereignty within the Oneida Nation Reservation Community. After receiving a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture in the summer of 2011, she was hired by the Sac and Fox Tribe, aka the Meskwaki Nation, as their Local Foods Planner, and tasked with creating a new program within the Economic Development Department. That program became known as the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative. Her absolute favorite part of our food and farm system is farm work and farm-based education. As part of MFSI, in 2013 their team launched Red Earth Gardens, a 40-acre Tribally-run organic produce farm. Jennifer now spends much of her time managing the farm and dreaming of ways to get more produce out there to people and have a thriving, self-sustaining farm. Building off a successful first year, the farm has increased production in 2014 while continuing to provide affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables to the Meskwaki community and region. In her free time she likes to visit with family and friends, listen to music, dance and go for motorcycle rides.



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