In a fall garden: John Yellow Hawk and granddaughter Millie High Horse, 5, look over his garden notebook. (Stephanie Woodard)

Gardens Flourish on Pine Ridge

Stephanie Woodard
December 05, 2012

Kyle, South Dakota — John Yellow Hawk’s garden is one of many new feeders of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s developing economy. This past year, Yellow Hawk and 20 other Oglala gardeners each received a $1,000 loan and a $2,000 grant from Citigroup via Lakota Funds, a 26-year-old Native community development financial institution in Kyle, South Dakota, on the northern end of the reservation. With this support, the gardeners purchased the seeds, tools, fencing and other items and services needed to get market plots under way.

All the gardeners repaid the loans at the end of the season by selling produce at stationary and mobile farmers markets on the reservation and in off-reservation Cactus Flat, South Dakota, where they began building an additional customer base. Some were able to hire help, providing jobs and contributing further to the development of a vital Pine Ridge economy.

“Here’s what I’m most proud of,” said Yellow Hawk, standing in his neatly tilled 100-foot-by-100-foot hilltop plot and paging through his garden notebook. He thumbed past awards tucked into the journal. They were from Oglala Lakota College’s 2012 Wazi Paha Festival: the grand prize for his Asian corn (a baby corn), first place for hot peppers he grew, third place for his bell peppers and fourth place for tomatoes.

“Ah, here it is,” he said. “The paper that shows I paid back my loan.”

As the project’s gardeners repay loans, they build a positive payment history, improve their credit score and qualify for additional loans, including from the new federal credit union that opened on Pine Ridge this month, said Lakota Funds business success coach/loan officer Tonia Young, Oglala.

Partners in the gardens project include South Dakota State University’s extension service, the university’s Lakota Beginning Farmer/Rancher Training Program, National Relief Charities and the youth center in Kyle, South Dakota.

The opportunity to improve tribal members’ health was another incentive for the 21 gardeners. Pine Ridge is a place where people still line up monthly for government rations doled out from the back of a truck—including low-quality items such as white flour, canned goods and a cheese-like substance. “Commods caused our diabetes,” Yellow Hawk said.

The increasing availability of junk food has exacerbated the problem, said Young. “Nowadays, mountains of soda pop are sold here, along with chips, cookies and other unhealthy foods.”

In contrast, the food Yellow Hawk and fellow gardeners grew this past season was not only nutritious but grown without pesticides or other chemicals. Though the program’s participants have not gone through the expensive, complicated process of obtaining USDA certification, their gardens are essentially organic. By using drip irrigation, Yellow Hawk and other gardeners managed all this with minimal use of water, delivered right to the plants.

To ensure that during the coming winter his family has access to a natural, whole-food staple, Yellow Hawk is building an old-time root cellar for his homegrown potatoes. One of the valuable ancient crops of the Americas, potatoes offer high levels of Vitamin C and the B vitamins, as well as iron, magnesium, potassium and other minerals. Two of Yellow Hawk’s favorite potato recipes: boil small ones in soup along with dried deer meat and corn, or, if you heat with wood as he does, put the tubers on top of the stove, turning them occasionally until they’re roasted through, with crispy skin, in just a few hours.

Traditional foodways inspire Yellow Hawk. He has transplanted into his garden wild juneberries, an old-time ingredient for a Sioux pudding now often made with blueberries and sugar. It’s an experiment, as some nondomesticated varieties don’t take to garden conditions. “I’ll see if the juneberries like it here,” Yellow Hawk said.

The garden has unexpectedly afforded Yellow Hawk a way to improve his home site, which is scoured by the region’s fierce north winds. He pointed out little ash trees that had sprouted in the tilled rows. “They like the drip irrigation,” he explained. “There are enough to transplant them outside the garden and create a windbreak.”

To plan for next year, Yellow Hawk goes over his garden notebook and considers the many interlocking factors—some of them entirely unpredictable—that go into a successful market garden. These include: the weather, the soil; pests, like potato beetles and grasshoppers; the vagaries of the market (arugula was less popular than he expected last summer); crops that were so popular he needs to plant more of them (corn, tomatoes, jalapeños and snow peas); new items like strawberries that he expects to be successful; and value-added products he might offer, like pickles, salsas and dried corn for soup.

“As our growers become more experienced, we can increase production,” said Young. “We should be able to supply schools, stores, even the commodity-foods program. Why should those items be trucked in, when we can produce high-quality food right here?”

Young paused and looked over the golden autumn prairie surrounding Yellow Hawk’s garden. “We already have the resource needed for this—the land. It can be done.”

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