Published Sep 30, 2014

Field Day Report: Red Earth Gardens, Meskwaki Settlement near Tama

By Liz Kolbe

Like all good PFI field days, rain threatened, the microphone squawked, and the food was amazing (local bison burgers grilled by Mustafa Hammouda of Relish, in Grinnell, IA). Unlike any other PFI field day I’ve attended, Red Earth Gardens is truly integrated into a community project, the Local Food Sovereignty Initiative of the Meskawki Nation.

The Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa (Meskwaki Nation), hired Jennifer Vazquez in 2011 as the Local Foods Coordinator, and along with Economic Development Director Larry Lasley, they created a strategic plan to increase food sovereignty and healthy eating on the Meskwaki Settlement and in the Tama community. In 2013, Red Earth Gardens put seeds in the ground. In only its second season of production, the four-acre farm is growing a diverse mix of produce: strawberries, tomatoes, potatoes, squash and pumpkins, melons, spinach, chard, lettuce, rutabaga, 3 kinds of kale, radishes, carrots,  sunflowers, (etc) and flowers border many of the beds. They are also experimenting with cover crops, mostly a mix of oats, sorghum Sudan grass, and rye.

Along with those first seeds at Red Earth Gardens, which is the business incubator and CSA farm, seeds were also going into the new senior garden and community garden plots. When those seeds grew, cooking classes, community meals, school gardens and a greenhouse, and a TSA (Tribally Supported Agriculture) quickly followed. They manage all these programs, the Meskwaki tribe has four Americorp volunteers, a farm manager (Vazquez), an assistant farm manager (Kristofer Johnson), a local foods coordinator (Laura Kleiman), a community organizer (Jerry Youngbear Jr.), and an essential farm staffer, Bryant Bear (BJ).

Laura and two of the Americorps Vista Volunteers (Emma O’Polka and Ciska Ulug) opened the field day with some information about the Local Food Sovereignty Initiative. Emma runs the program for seniors. “In the last two years we grew over 2,000 lbs of produce at the senior center garden for use at senior center community meals,” said O’Polka. “But squash is heavy,” she added, to chuckles from the audience. The senior garden also raises traditional Meskwaki corn, squash, and beans for use at traditional meals, which they have four times each year.

Kleiman added, “We grow a lot of traditional corn, beans, and squash at the senior garden. But it is not a culturally acceptable practice to sell those things for money. Tribal members who might grow them at home might gift them or trade for them. Because we adhere to all traditional Meskawki growing practices here at Red Earth Gardens, it is not an appropriate thing for us to do, to grow those things and sell them. And with Meskwaki corn, we would be concerned about genetic drift because there are some other corn fields close by.” In all, the Vista Volunteers hold 25 events on the settlement each year, including cooking classes for TSA participants to teach them new (and old) ways of preparing produce for meals.

The TSA offered by Red Earth Gardens is the only community supported agriculture venture in Tama County. Because they’re the first in the county, they have to do a lot of education and started small with only 10 shares. They also partnered with the Meskwaki Health Clinic to give 5 shares to families with members who have diabetes. Next year they plan to increase to 30 shares.

With the TSA and their farmers market stands at the Meskwaki Trading Post and in Toledo, Red Earth Gardens faces steep price competition. “I’ll be really honest with you guys,” said Vazquez. “A good day at the Trading Post is $180 in 3 hours. At the Toledo Farmers Market, the best we’ve ever done is $320. The issue is, the only other vegetable growers there are retirees. Which is fine, but they’re only concerned with covering the cost of their seeds and are practically giving it away.”

A gentleman in the crowd said with a sheepish grin, “I retired so I could grow vegetables.” With a smile (and to many laughs), Jennifer replied, “Good for you, just price your produce for what it’s worth, ok?”

Jennifer knows there are higher priced markets in Iowa. They sell beans for $2/lb; in Iowa City they sell for $6/lb. People always say, “‘Why don’t you go to the Des Moines Farmers’ Market or the Iowa City Farmers’ Market where you could make more?’ Yes, we could make more at those markets. But we want to feed people here. This is our community, this is who we’re growing for, and this is who we’re trying to feed.” She continued, “And if you’re not used to buying produce, everything seems too expensive because it’s more expensive than Rice-A-Roni. That’s the reality we’re working with and why what we’re doing here is so important.”

For now, Red Earth Gardens is cash flowing their farm with a great hay crop. BJ Bear added, “There’s a higher value to food than money. You can’t eat a dollar.” With a good-natured wince from Vazquez he added, “Our farm stand sales would probably be a little bit higher… but I like giving away food too much.”

For more information on the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative is available on their website.