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John Fisher-Merritt (center) explains hoop house tomato production to producers from the Fond du Lac Band who are learning to farm in the band’s producer training program. John is mentoring the farm manager and the trainees through the MOSES Farmer-to- Farmer Mentoring Program. Photo submitted

Mentor program helps northern Minnesota Band work toward food sovereignty

By Nikki Crowe, Erika Legros, and Jill Jacoby

Just as fertile soil is the foundation of a successful organic farm, the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program is the foundation of farmer success. Through this program, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has been paired with mentor John Fisher-Merritt from the Food Farm in Carlton, Minnesota. John is a well-known and respected organic farmer who along with his son, Janaki, and his wife, Jane, own and operate the Food Farm. The family received the 2010 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year award.

The Fond du Lac Band is one of six Chippewa Indian Bands that make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The Fond du Lac Reservation was established by the La Pointe Treaty of 1854 and is located outside of Cloquet, Minnesota. Archaeologists, however, maintain that ancestors of the present-day Chippewa (Ojibwe) have resided in the Great Lakes area since 800 A.D. Today there are over 4,200 Band members. The Ojibwe name for the Fond du Lac Reservation is “Nagaajiwanaang,” which means “where the water stops.”

Food Sovereignty Initiative
As tribal nations lost control over their homelands, they also lost connections to ancestral knowledge about subsistence ways of life. After treaties were signed, the U.S. government began distributing annuity foods that were high in fat and salt compared to traditional foods, and this dietary shift led to poor health.

Food sovereignty is the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods. Today, Fond du Lac is reinvigorating local food sovereignty with vegetable and herb gardens, farms, and orchards that complement the harvest and gathering of traditional wild foods, fish, and game.

Ojibwe life is deeply connected with food production. The term “farmer” is perceived as limiting to many in the Fond du Lac community because it implies a Western perspective of conventional agriculture methods such as excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides which act against natural cycles rather than in sync with natural systems. For this reason, we use the term “producer” to refer to community members involved in agricultural activities, which connects to the concept of cultivating and harvesting resources as a participant in greater natural systems.

The initiative aims to balance social and ecological needs and desires of the Band while providing food in a sustainable manner as well as strengthening community resilience to natural resource vulnerabilities and risks. There are several programs under the umbrella of the Food Sovereignty Initiative:

Bimaaji’idiwin Garden Program
Translated, Bimaaji’idiwin means “saving each other’s lives.” This name is a big responsibility to live up to and the Bimaaji’idiwin Garden Program attempts to do so through education outreach and preservation. An important objective for the garden is to expand and maintain a collection of Anishinaabe and Native American heirloom crop seeds through a seed library. The garden also provides over 1,000 pounds of produce to the community members, Elderly Nutrition Programs, Babaamaadiziwin Gitigaan (Journey Garden), Fond du Lac Summer Program, Age-to-Age Camp, and the Ganawenjigewin Maawanji’idiwin (Taking Care of Things event). The project also includes a demonstration garden, hands-on gardening lessons and workshops, seasonal outlooks, and internships.

Gitigaan Program
This is a 10-week program on horticulture and nutrition topics, combining current information with Ojibwe history, culture, and tradition. Horticulturalists, Native American Elders, and other resource people lead evening discussions.

Babaamaadiziwin Gitigaan
This is a youth garden program that provides education on gardening and marketing produce at a farmers market. This program is run in conjunction with the Ojibwe School on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

The Fond Du Lac Band has received funding from USDA Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmer and Ranchers Program to develop a food producer training program. The goal of the program is to provide outreach, education, and technical assistance to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa members and the surrounding communities, with a special effort to support socially disadvantaged farmers and veteran farmers.

The producer training program is modeled after the Big River farmer education training model in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota. Producers in the program receive ¼ acre of tilled land, training, supplies, materials, seeds, and tools to use. This allows for a trial period for producers in the program without a large financial burden. The program’s optimal capacity is seven producers. They are required to attend training sessions in the winter, create a business plan, plant, tend, and harvest their crops. Participants receive a $250 scholarship upon completion of the program and their business plan.

To get the Producer Training Program off the ground, the Band signed up for the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program and eagerly accepted the chance to be mentored by John Fisher-Merritt, who has been working with the Gitigaan Program since 2004.

John’s help on the farm began with soil tests in the summer of 2018 to understand what nutrients the soil needed for farm production. He then attended the MOSES Conference this year with the farm manager, Erika Legros, other staff and producers. Erika and John scouted the exhibit hall for tools and seeds for the program.

From March through June, John taught producer training sessions and met weekly with the producers to provide advice on their planting schedules, crops, and weed control. Every two weeks during the growing season, John has visited the farm to see how crops are growing and to make recommendations.

“The producers came to the program with a variety of skills and time availability,” John said. “Those who had time and know-how to do timely weed control produced a lot of food. Those who didn’t have enough time to give to their crop production had a good learning experience.”

Producers in the program also have had the chance to tour John’s farm, where he showed them how he has used cover crops, manure, and compost to turn an overgrazed pasture into the fertile soil where he grows a large variety of organic crops. He also reinforced how much time and effort is put in on his farm to manage weeds, which he referred to as “no goods.”

The new food producers have learned firsthand how hard it is to keep up with weeds. At one point this summer, a tractor operator plowed up an entire row of potatoes thinking there was nothing but weeds in the row!

John has provided technical support related to organic practices, soil sciences, and is an inspiration for farmers in the training program, Erika said. He provides staff a shoulder to lean on, a consultant to get technical support from, but most importantly he is helping members of the Fond du Lac community achieve food sovereignty and security, she added.

John has found the partnership rewarding as well. “I have been given a glimpse into the Ojibway agricultural philosophy,” he said. “I consider my time with the Producer Training Program well spent, and I look forward to continuing my relationship with the program as it matures and results in advancing food sovereignty on the Reservation.”

To learn more about the Fond du Lac community’s programs contact Jill Jacoby, Food Sovereignty Coordinator  or call 218-878-7142.

Nikki Crowe is the Tribal Conservation Coordinator and was the visionary for obtaining the farm and creating the producer training program. Erika Legros is the Farm Manager for the Producer Training Program and manages the demonstration and community gardens. Jill Jacoby is the Food Sovereignty Coordinator and recruits producers and develops training programs.


From the September | October 2019 Issue


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