The Slim Buttes Agricultural Development (SBAG) program had a successful, but challenging, 2022 working to enable dozens of Oglala Lakota families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to establish gardens as it has been doing since 1985 with support from Running Strong for American Indian Youth®.
In January, SBAG Executive Director Tom Cook reported a busy spring which included tilling gardens, distributing 2,000 seedlings to dozens of families (along with seed packages, bags of soil), building and refurbishing raised beds, constructing planter boxes, and more serving 360 individuals aged 4 to 90 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Mother Nature was uncooperative periodically throughout the year with climate change causing less precipitation resulting in severe droughts, temperatures in the triple digits during much of the summer months and constant heavy winds with 70 mph gusts ripping off newly-installed roof panels on its greenhouse, Tom reported.
But the accomplishments were many as 50 families and organizations started gardens for the first time, the greenhouse was rebuilt so that the growing season could be extended year-round, and produce, including tomatoes, watermelons and a variety of squashes from the SBAG garden were distributed to community elders in the fall.
Although SBAG has been providing Pine Ridge residents with gardening assistance for nearly four decades, year after year, Tom and field director Milo Yellow Hair work to improve the program and adapt to the changing climate.
For example, Tom said “in order to use less water – while growing more food – we will adopt more of the Grow Biointensive gardening methods” which is an organic agricultural system that focuses on achieving maximum yields from a minimum area of land, while simultaneously increasing biodiversity and sustaining the fertility of the soil. It is particularly effective for backyard gardeners and smallholder farmers.
Tom explained that among those methods are “double-dug” raised beds that allow roots to grow deeper, planting the seedlings closer together to provide a natural leafy shade cover so that the soil will not dry out so quickly and conserve water, the installation of moveable shade covers over the raised beds to protect the plants from the blazing sun and create biointensive compost piles “because healthy soil leads to healthy gardens.”
Another problem they encountered is one any gardener and farmer is well aware of – pesky varmints – with Tom reporting, “Rabbits ate seedlings and plants inside the hoophouse (a type of greenhouse) and fenced garden, so for this season he said they will be installing chicken wire fencing along the bottom of the garden fence and hoophouse.
In addition to helping to start gardens and repairing the greenhouse, other accomplishments Tom reported include the “Wojub Woyanka” radio programs on KILI Radio (serving Pine Ridge) provided a lot of information on gardening, diabetes control, healthy recipes, as well as keeping people updated on important issues such as uranium mining and climate change, all in both Lakota and English, hosted by Milo.
“It generated a lot of interest and phone calls from people who wanted gardens and/or more information about gardening and growing food,” Tom commented.
SBAG also provided community services throughout the year, “both spiritual and practical,” he reported, which included conducting 24 sweat lodge meetings at the basecamp, and delivering tomatoes, watermelons and a variety of squashes to elderly community members in the fall.
And during the worst of winter, “Milo used the Bobcat (compact tractor) to dig people our and remove snow from neighborhood roads and driveways after the blizzard in December,” said Tom.
Following the initial planting stage, follow up activities included checking in on the status of gardens and continuing to provide support to gardeners during the summer months, starting a community pumpkin patch and garden adjacent to the Slim Buttes Community Center, year-round food production in the greenhouse, creating surveys to record the progress of the gardens during the summer and collecting data of harvest results in the fall and identifying home gardens for 2023 support.
SBAG also conducted food preservation workshops at the basecamp after the harvesting season with topics including how to dry corn, slice and dry squash and clean, grind and dry chokecherry patties, as well as distributing printed recipes that use produce from the garden and can be frozen, such as tomato sauce, basil pesto and squash soup.
And to ensure that people had access to fresh, nutritious greens during the winter months, SBAG distributed 50 trays of microgreens to homes in November and December.
In sum, Tom reported, “It was a tough year due to weather-related issues and long term plans dealing with climate change will require our attention and effective ways to grow produce are a life-altering issue demanding urgent attention.
“But, as dire as it seems, right now the grounds of Pine Ridge are covered in much-needed snow, the White River has beavers making dams and the downed trees will make good fire for the sweat lodge ceremony.
“There is a balance and a lesson to be learned.
“We say thank you to all the people who gave their time and resources to keep the dream of a livable Pine Ridge alive and well.”