Rocky Boy is a Native American reservation about 25 miles north of our family farm in northern Montana. It’s tucked up against the scenic Bear Paw Mountains and is currently home to over 2,500 Chippewa-Cree tribe members. Interestingly enough, the reservation, the last and smallest one to be created in Montana, was established in 1916, only four years before my grandfather, Emmet Quinn, came to call this prairie land home as well.
Perhaps it’s our long-standing connection to this beautiful land, or my newfound perspective upon returning home from school 37 years ago that led me to take an interest in my Native American neighbors. I wanted to learn more about them, their culture and history. I also wanted to help them. As with many reservations, these good people continually struggle with poor health, high unemployment, and many other social and economic challenges.
As a farmer, I knew I could help solve at least one of these issues and that was with the hard but rewarding work of gardening. Growing your own fruits and vegetables is an inexpensive way to provide a healthier, balanced diet for you and your family. It’s also immensely satisfying to see your hard work pay off when it’s time to harvest and you can put the fruit of your labor on the kitchen table. So that’s where I began. I tried to help families on the reservation to cultivate their own gardens. I donated garden seeds, seed potatoes and bedding plants. In the beginning took my small tractor and large roto-tiller around to help families who requested help establishing new garden plots. For nearly twenty-five years, I continued to work with my friends at Rocky Boy and while it wasn’t a total loss, I wasn’t making the impact I was hoping for. Very few gardens made it to harvest.
By 2002, I had been farming organically for nearly fifteen years when it dawned on me in a moment of divine inspiration. Food sovereignty based on sustainable organic agriculture, ancient wheat and corn and cottage industry (small manufacturing centers) had the potential to address many of the serious issues my friends at the Rocky Boy reservation continued to face. And by late 2003, I had drafted a proposal to target not only poor health issues – diabetes in particular—but also unemployment and economic development on the reservation.
The entire plan started with converting a portion of the tribal farm to organic farming and planting ancient grain which are anti-inflamitory and can reduce diabetes and other chronic diseases linked to inflammation. This foundation would produce food that would not only be healthier, but would also provide higher premiums for the portion of crops sold which were not needed to feed the reservation. Various, small low-cost cottage industries, like a flour mill and a bakery, could be added there on the reservation, providing more jobs and still more healthy food options. The possibilities were endless and to say I was a little excited would be a gross understatement. But when I approached the tribal council with my proposal, they were largely uninterested.
Not to be deterred, I refocused my efforts to really fine-tune my proposal. Over the next decade, I worked with a number of consultants, specialists and legislative leaders on everything from government grants, to diabetes and other Native American economic development ideas. But in the end, what was lacking was a commitment by the tribal council on the Rocky Boy reservation to proceed.
Then last year, I decided to approach the small, community college on the Rocky Boy reservation. The president of Stone Child College, Dr. Nate St Pierre, showed immediate interest in my idea using the college as a launching pad for food sovereignty. Naturally, not everything in my proposal could be taught in one class. So I wrote up ideas for a phase in of the program starting with just one class. That Idea was well received. To support the food production side, we provided organic seed and expertise for the the first test plots of organic ancient wheat for their farm along with a small grain mill and a small restaurant size pasta extruder for the class.
And that is where I am today, about halfway through my first 8-week half semester course, with five students enrolled. I am working with the science instructor at the college and other guest lecturers to teach these young adults about the value of ancient grains and how they can become an important part of their diet. Each class is two hours long. The first hour is a lecture format, while the second half of the class is practical. They learn to use a grain mill and a pasta machine and, best of all, use the flour and pasta products they produce in class for healthy, tasty dishes they then make for the class. They are then sent home with a recipe and enough flour or pasta to make these dishes for their families at home. This will reinforce what they learned in class so they can begin to use this basic food and the recipes over and over again. One of my students was so excited that he is now thinking of becoming a chef.
While it may seem like a minor success, it is a huge step in the right direction. The next step will be to extend this class to a full-semester and add bread baking equipment. With a little hope, and a lot of prayers, each step will bring us closer to a healthier, self-sustaining model for my friends at Rocky Boy which could then serve as a model for other reservations with similar issues around the country. It can set the precedent, that the importance of organic farming and ancient grain can affect more than food, it can affect health, economies and bring pride, motivation and a sense of achievement and control of destiny back to people’s lives.