They are called “Tools for Growth” because that’s exactly what they are: shovels, rakes, hoes, pruners, cultivators and more, all with the purpose of enabling dozens of Oglala Lakota families on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation grow fresh vegetables and fruits right in their very own backyards.
But it’s also much more than that, as through the Oyate Teca Project’s Medicine Root Gardening Program going on right now, these budding gardeners are attending classes at its new Oyate Ta Kola Ku Community Center in anticipation of the start of the planting season following the last frost of the season, expected in early May on the Great Plains of South Dakota.
But before they begin putting those tools to good use transforming hard bare dirt into fertile soil, since February they have been filling their heads with the knowledge they’ll need to successfully grow a bountiful harvest using a variety of techniques they’re learning through the Mittleider Method of gardening, which includes establishing grow beds, square-foot gardening, no-till and what’s know as the “do-little” method.
In the classroom they are learning seed starting and how to transplant seedlings, how to irrigate their gardens, the proper use of natural fertilizers (including manure and composting), organic pest control and more, and come May the weekly classes move outdoors where they’ll be doing hands-on learning working in the Medicine Root community garden, and helping each other throughout spring and summer with planting and harvesting.
Before planting time, each of the class participants will receive fencing for a standard 40 foot x 60 foot garden to protect their plants from pesky varmints, and drip lines to ensure the soil remains properly moist regardless of the weather conditions throughout the lot hot days of summer.
In addition to learning how to grow vegetables and fruits, they will also be learning the fundamentals of cooking their fresh produce using Native recipes which will not only enable them and their family members to have a much healthier diet, but also provide them with a better understanding of the importance of nutrition and portion control to their overall health.
On top of all that, in most, if not all, instances in previous years, the Medicine Root gardeners have been so successful that not only have they harvested enough for their immediate family and to share with their extended relatives and friends and neighbors, but they still have a surplus which they are able to sell at farmers markets to supplement their household income directly benefiting thousands more Pine Ridge residents.
Those who participate in the gardening course also attend classes in entrepreneurship that include training in financial literacy, credit repair and restoration and small business planning.
In addition, as the growing season is short on Pine Ridge, it’s important to have sturdy high tunnels, greenhouses and hoophouses to extend the growing season to all year round – and must also be able to withstand strong winds and hailstorms in the summer and freezing conditions and blizzards in the winter.
To that end, Running Strong is working to raise $85,000 for polycarbonate panels for four high tunnels, as well as $3,629 for shade cloth for the green house, nursery and hoophouses to protect seedlings and plants from rays from the strong summer sun.
All of this is desperately needed on the Pine Ridge reservation where residents have among the lowest life expectancies in the nation, in large part due to poor diets – Oglalas are 800 percent more likely to die from diabetes that other Americans – and both children and adults struggle throughout their lifetimes with both obesity and malnutrition due to chronic food insecurity.
Pine Ridge, located in Oglala Lakota County, is among the poorest counties in the U.S. and known as a “food desert” where fresh, healthy food is scarce, and expensive and generally low quality when available. There is only one actual full-service grocery store on the vast reservation forcing families to rely on gas stations, convenient stores, government commodities for food, or for those who can afford to travel long distances, up to 1.5 hours one-way to grocery and big box stores off the reservation.