Kaben Smallwood speaks during the Aquaponic open house at Eastern Oklahoma State College.

Choctaw Brothers Want to Make Tribes Self-Sufficient With Aquaponic Farming

Lynn Armitage

Kaben Smallwood has a dream: One day, every Native American tribe will grow its own food and conserve natural resources in the process, too.

The Choctaw native is well on his way to achieving that ambitious goal through Symbiotic, LLC, a company he founded in 2012 with his brother, Shelby, and a friend that builds nontraditional farming systems designed to recirculate water to raise fish and grow produce. “We pump water from the fish tank, which contains the fish emulsion, into the greenhouse, where plants and a grow bed are flooded with this nutrient-rich water,” an agricultural method dating back to Aztecan and Far Eastern cultures, the 30-year-old Smallwood said in a 2013 story with Indian Country Today.

Since that story was published, Smallwood is happy to report that they have made earnest progress working with the Seminole, Choctaw, Cheyenne and Arapahoe Nations. Currently, they have contracts in place to build two different aquaponic systems in Oklahoma.

The first system will be an 80-square-foot growing facility for the Seminole Nation to be used for youth education, nutrition and aquaponic training. For this project, Symbiotic has partnered with the Sheena V. Foundation in Dallas, a nonprofit agency that funds nutrition-related programs serving Native American youth.

The second 200-square-foot growing system is earmarked for the Choctaw Nation, but the deal is contingent upon the release of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “This project is very near and dear to me because I am a member of the tribe,” Smallwood told ICTMN. “It will give me and my brother an opportunity to design food and implement a system that is going to benefit our people.”

One of the key components to the future success of Symbiotic is education. “The big hurdle with aquaponics is showing individuals that this is not a concept, that it is real,” Smallwood explained. To that end, his team has also partnered with Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton (where they already built a six-bed, $10,000 system) to offer one-day “crash courses” in aquaponics. “They learn everything from community building, to economic development, to how aquaponics works, to system design. It’s a pretty deep class,” said Smallwood, excited that the general public has attended these classes, too, along with key tribal representatives, who he refers to as “internal champions” pivotal to making aquaponics a successful venture in the long run.

RELATED: Choctaw Brothers Pioneer Aquaponic Farming System to Tackle Food Insecurity in Indian Country

Smallwood believes that the partnership with Eastern Oklahoma State College lends credibility to their educational efforts. “Having a third party to verify water and energy usage, and herb production, really sets us apart in the market. So instead of us making claims about the feasibility of our aquaponic systems, we can verify them independently with this third party.”

While there are a handful of aquaponic farming companies in the country, Smallwood said Symbiotic is the only Native-owned and–operated business that he has identified in this niche market. “By having that heritage and cultural values, we feel we are better able to serve the Native populations.” He added, “Our unique system design, as well as the educational, economic and social approach we take to aquaponics, makes us one of a kind.”

Contributing business writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

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