Food is something we often take for granted. For many, it comes in boxes, cans or wrapped in plastic. To others, though, food represents something more important than just the sum of calories and nutrition that can be wedged in between daily errands. For them, food is culture. Food is tradition and, in some cases, that tradition is on the edge of extinction.
Dr. Lee Hester, associate professor of American Indian studies at USAO, knows the plight of dwindling food culture all too well.
“Many of the traditional varieties of corn once commonly grown are now near extinction,” he noted.
For many native tribal nations, these disappearing seed stocks represent the last link to agricultural traditions that stretch back into pre-history.
As a professor of American Indian studies as well as a member of the Choctaw nation, Hester (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma, 1999) feels a sense of urgency about preserving not only the seed stocks but the methods of planting and harvesting that sustained plant and people alike.
“I have planned on doing a book on adapting traditional agriculture for modern use for some time but have been so busy with classes that the research necessary for the book just couldn’t be done,” Hester said.
“While discussing these problems with Kent Sanman, another practitioner of traditional agriculture, he pointed out that even though a book was nice, the problem is currently very acute and I could actually do a class that would serve a number of very practical goals, perhaps even better in the short term than the book would.”
Utilizing USAO’s unique five-week independent study program, Hester assembled a team of five students to do exactly that — plant a number of endangered tribal corn varieties in order to increase the seed stock as well as pass the traditional cultivation methods on to the next generation. Unlike most independent study programs, the team will work the ground and resulting crop through the summer until harvest.
As the project began, the team received a hands-on course in traditional planting methods from Wichita tribal elder Stuart Owings. Team member Marcy LaFerr, American Indian studies major from Anadarko, said that Owings’ contribution went well beyond just his know-how.
“We were lucky enough to have Stuart give us some of his seeds to let us grow,” LaFerr noted. “As far as we know, he is the only one who has those seeds. He passed those down to us.”
Other seed stocks came directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the hopes that a successful cultivation of these diminishing lines would yield more seed than the department currently has stockpiled.
With Owings’ input, the team developed a uniform style of planting that would allow them to scientifically study the effectiveness of the traditional methods.
The majority of the plants are being raised on land managed by the Oklahoma State University Agricultural Resource Center just outside of Chickasha. This year, the project is focusing on seven varieties of endangered corn: Wichita White, Osage Red, Delaware Blue, Big Horse Spotted, Arapaho White, Binger Blue and Fairfax Brown.
An important facet of traditional planting methods is the other crops that get planted along with the corn.
“The historical significance of the corn, beans and squash is that they were planted together for thousands of years by American Indian people as the ‘three sisters,” Hester said.
“The squash we have planted is all a Wichita variety of Cushaw squash. The pole beans are a mixed batch of pole beans all of Cherokee origin including some Trail of Tears pole beans (a dark black variety).”
In addition to crop mixing, the team went even further to ensure that they were planting according to traditional methods.
“One of the things about the field that we’re working in,” LaFerr said, “is that we found out that they don’t have enough nitrogen in their soil.”
The team was able to get an effective organic nitrogen “fertilizer” from an unexpected source.
“We ended up adding coffee grounds that we’ve collected,” said LaFerr. “If you go to Starbucks, you can ask for the coffee grounds they’ve collected during the day so I’ve been going to four or five different ones. I’ve collected close to fifty pounds of coffee grounds.”
Using ash from LaFerr’s family sweat lodge, they were able to add potassium back to the soil, a technique that dates back to the Mayan civilization.
LaFerr explained that when the corn reaches knee-height, the beans are planted to add the ntirogen back into the soil that were depleted by the first crop. Hester noted that it is the modern approach to agriculture that leaves the soil nitrogen-depleted in the first place.
“Ironically,” Hester said, “American farming methods up to the growth of corporate farming were often based on native principles even when they didn’t perfectly mimic the techniques.”
“It wasn’t until big business took over agriculture and we began converting what they thought of as an inexhaustible supply of oil into food that we began using all the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.”
Hester also pointed out that the current mode of agriculture is an extremely inefficient one.
“Depending on what food crop you are talking about,” he said, “agribusiness expends from five to 35 calories of energy for every calorie of food that they produce. In contrast, traditional methods reap about 15 calories for every calorie that is put in.”
LaFerr now shares an intimate understanding of Hester’s urgency regarding the survival of both the corn strains and the methods for growing them.
“At first,” she said, “we thought, ‘hey, that would be nice to be outside working, planting some corn.”
“We didn’t know that we would actually be preserving some of our heritage, working together in a community. The biggest thing was that we didn’t know that a lot of the tribal corn was either extinct or on the verge of it. That’s what we are helping to preserve.”
“That’s something that really matters.”