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College of Menominee Nation hosts virtual conference, shares research

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
David Overstreet, a professor at the College of Menominee Nation, maps the ancient gardens with friends.

The College of Menominee Nation recently announced a virtual conference based around the tribal nation's historical agriculture practices, evaluating where the Menominee people have been and where they're going.

Multiple pre-recorded lectures were made available to watch at the viewer's convenience, ranging on many Menominee topics from food sovereignty, to research on the "ancient gardens" and updates on what the college has been doing to help get youth involved in Menominee agriculture.

Frank Kutka, a new faculty member at CMN, said in his lecture that the college is establishing a new Bachelor of Science program in Sustainable Agriculture. He said the CMN board has approved the new curriculum and they are hoping to have the program accredited soon. The new degree program will launch this fall, with scholarship funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to help recruit students.

Kutka said the new degree program was built based on community recommendations that revealed a need to address community food concerns.

"There is definitely a growing interest in food, gardening, agriculture, and all of these things as a means of achieving a greater community wellness," Kutka said. "(The) capstone courses ... (focus on) sustaining community wellness and sustainability in place, where we really try to get our students to engage with the local community."

The Sustainable Agriculture degree will be comprised of two phases, with phase one being the completion of an associate's degree in Natural Resources, followed by a two-year program to round out the bachelor's in Sustainable Agriculture. Kutka said the course curriculum includes classes on Indigenous agriculture as well as science, business and capstone courses.

Kutka also highlighted other important work CMN has been doing over the past decade to bring in youth and address food concerns, including the operation of the Kehtekaewak Farmers Market in Keshena since 2015, the establishment of the Turtle Garden and other gardens since 2013 and the Sustainable Development Institute's efforts to recruit youth to work in the Ancient Gardens each summer.

He also said the college is proud of its collaborative efforts with University of Wisconsin Extension in their continuing education program for adults.

"Continuing Education and Menominee County UW Extension collaborate on lots of gardening work, including classes and more workshops, videos," Kutka said. "It's very much an excellent collaborative effort to get out this sort of information to a population that's very eager to learn a lot more about gardening."

On the left is a picture of the Menominee ancient gardens before excavation; on the right, during excavation.

The progression of research related to the Menominee people's ancient gardens is exciting, Kutka said. The ancient gardens are a historically significant site, the focus of many archeological digs and research studies, that shows the history of the Menominee people's agricultural systems. The archeological digs have been funded by NIFA since 2012 in conjunction with archeology experts from UW-Madison.

"These (gardens) had been noticed by anthropologists, tribal members and others in the area, some time back, but they'd never received a lot of intensive scrutiny," Kutka said. "This project started a documentation of soils and microfossils that are in these ancient raised beds, and what they found, of course, was evidence of maize and other crops."

They used raised garden beds to grow crops like maize (corn) using soil amendments such as biochar and fish emulsion to improve the soil and crop productivity. Kutka explained that the ancient gardens are thought to be 1,000 years old and were actively cultivated until the early 20th century.

The ancient gardens are the subject of many upcoming studies and projects from CMN, Kutka said. The Traditional Agriculture Project will focus on keeping students and other youth present at the archeological digs to teach them more about Indigenous culture, especially surrounding food cultivation and traditions. A project named Advancing Sustainable Food Systems Based on Ancient Knowledge will investigate the garden beds and involve students in learning to ridge till by hand and with machinery.

That project also spawned the Flint Corn Project, started by students Adam Schulz and Dollie Potts under professor David Overstreet, who were interested in studying the effects of soil amendments in a modern sphere. That began in 2017 and has been recently renewed for a three-year expansion, Kutka said, that will add additional screens for corn, squash and bean varieties.

Adam Schulz and Dollie Potts with the Flint Corn Project.

"We're looking at the effects of those soil health microbial ecology and the production of the Flint corn and definitely seeing some very interesting results there, which we'll be publishing shortly," Kutka said. "The purpose of this project is to understand the methods behind soil improvement used in these raised beds by the Menominee ancestors."

Additionally, a NIFA grant will help fund efforts to rematriate Menominee seeds. Rematriation is the Indigenous practice of returning seeds back to their original communities as a method of spiritual healing and balance with the earth. Kutka said there may be Menominee seeds in many local seed collections that can be brought back to the Menominee people.

The Hempstead Project Heart will look into the production and marketing of hemp, including a demonstration planting planned for this summer. And the Garden-in-a-Box project is planned as a youth recruitment and involvement activity, where the college will provide simple gardening tools and resources to youth so they can grow their own garden. That project is funded by the Wisconsin chapter of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.

Frank Kutka

"What we're attempting to do is have the young people actually help us learn how to put together a no-till garden establishment program for kids using very limited supplies, so that we could reach lots of kids really fast with the kind of budget that we usually have for youth programs," Kutka said. "Several people had really excellent experiences this summer."