USC Food Forest: Growing traditions

Jess Gorman
Staff Writer
USC Food Forest at its summer peak with produce.

The Upper Sioux Community is thriving and growing. Call it resilience, call it determination, but what gives this well knit community it’s persevering shine is its cultivation of traditions in caring, sharing and stewardship. The USC is so focused on land use and feeding their members healthy traditional items from the history of this land, they created a Food Forest. The Food Forest Feasibility Project took its first steps towards planning in 2018 with installation beginning in 2019.

The Upper Sioux Community (USC) has had community gardens planted and tended by the Summer Youth Programs under the leadership of Youth Specialist Dawn Chase and her staff since approximately 1997, but in 2017 a big step forward came. The Upper Sioux Community (USC) was the recipient of a Super Bowl Legacy Fund grant in 2017. The grant sought out projects that would serve as a legacy to future generations. “When I began working for USC in 2009 my first dream was to do environmental restoration work” said Megan Moudry who acts as the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) Coordinator at USC. Restoration of natural habitats is a cornerstone to many values held by the USC.

Restoration includes reconnection of the people to the land and water around them. The Minnesota River Valley is a unique place with a rich history that includes several different microbiomes due to the change in elevation and the make-up of the underlying geology and hydrology. Original habitat that existed for thousands of years since the last glaciers melted. There are numerous sensitive places like wetlands and prairies that have been disturbed and greatly destroyed since the arrival of Europeans colonizers. Moudry, being a fact bank of area environmental knowledge explained the countrysides changing environment over the centuries, “Did you know that we used to have white oak trees in the river valley until the US Government Clear cut it in 1863? The sawmill processing the removed lumber was located in the area of the confluence of Hazel Creek and the Minnesota River. The Federal Government clearcut the white oak species, sent them down river to Minneapolis, and dismantled the sawmill afterwards.”

This type of abuse of the land has continued. Tribal elders remember collecting specific berries and other wild edibles in the area and have shared that they can no longer be found or easily accessed in today's environment. The oral history shared by Dakota people with thousands of years of environmental knowledge of this land coupled with natural history has catalyzed many people to have the same dream... to have access to the plants which were here before, nurturing and healing the generations before us. “I suppose that the dream for healing and restoration awakened in enough people to achieve a critical mass of folks that wanted to see us reconnect to those roots, literally and figuratively” said USC Food Forest staff.

Now a combination of USC Youth, Staff, Elders and various Food Sovereignty Team volunteers work diligently in the newer grant funded garden to help sustainability and restoration dreams take root. With the evolution of the Food Forest project the USC incorporated raised garden beds into the new space specifically to accommodate perennial food plants that will return each year. These freshly grown treats include: asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and raspberries. Past community gardens maintained by USC youth had been previously designed for annual food plants, which have to be replanted each year. Annuals include typical garden plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn, peppers and squash, etc. A mixture of conventional and native edible plants are grown, including; Fruit trees; apple, cherry, chokecherry, pear and plum, Bushes; chokeberry, hazelnut, gooseberry, honeyberry, elderberry, juneberry, grapes, and in the annual Raised beds; Arikara watermelon, Wamnaheża (Dakota heritage corn), heritage beans; succotash beans (from the Narragansett Indian tribe of Rhode Island) and ancient cave beans from the southwest, ancient Miami nation of Indiana squash, peas, cucumber, and dill. All of this is packed into a mere one acre space that abounds. This year the USC Food Forest was able to serve over 40 Elders. The youth share their produce within the Community, each year including a personally grown feast at community gatherings. Sharing is an important aspect of Dakota culture. “We honor ourselves and one another when we share. Likewise, the concept of wealth is measured by how much one gives to others, not how much one has” explained the USC staff.

The original 2017 grant, Zani Woyute (healthy foods) was written by Teresa Peterson. The orchard and gardens are just one part of the effort to access healthy, local, and traditional foods for USC. The tribal community also began keeping bees, and purchased commercial kitchen items to provide healthy foods, as well as preserve them and purchased equipment to tap trees for sap to make syrup. The youth programs have been particularly impacted by this work, making interaction with traditional foods and growing plants from seed each year accessible, educational and rewarding. “Our mentor for beekeeping was a community member spouse, the late Tracy Blue, who we were devastated to lose this spring,” said the USC. The grant went through some revisions as staff learned of the feasibility of various plans. The Deep Winter Greenhouse was not feasible, so the idea of planting a Food Forest started to grow. Accessibility issues are important in health equity work. Growing, tending, harvesting and eating are fulfilling activities for people of all ages and abilities. In the research leading up to the current project, the USC members taking on this momentous task asked the Elders, in particular, what plants they recall were found and consumed here, and what plants would they like to see available to the community. Elder, Carolynn Schommer was consulted on the Dakota language for the interpretive signage.

Many of the foods the USC enjoys today originated from the Indigenous Peoples of what are now known as the Americas. Heritage seeds have been passed down among the generations and are planted and tended still today in the USC plots. The value of these heritage seeds can be exponentially better than super market finds. Traditional, native foods are higher in nutrition than many of their modern day counterparts; many of which have been bred for travel to and from market. Eating traditional and healthy conventional foods can lead to well-being and prevention of disease. “Taking the time to grow and nurture our own food gives us connection back to the earth, our source of life. There are proven scientific benefits to working with soil and plants as a way to promote wellbeing. One can find microbes with antidepressant properties in the soil. The teamwork built while working together on a positive project such as this also contributes to community and individual wellness. Growing one’s own food is a fun way to promote activity while providing nutrition from healthy, local foods” explained Moudry.

Special mention to the following staff and community members for their involvement; Dawn Chase, Youth Specialist; Sophia Blue, Youth Worker; Shakeena Schommer, Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Coordinator; Megan Moudry, Statewide Health Improvement Partnership Coordinator; Starla Chase, Child Care and Development Fund; Lisa Leaf, Diabetes Coordinator; Mitch Olson and Dave Johnson in Public Works. Community Volunteers; Dalton LaBatte and Nalen Brockman.