The Big Pine Paiute Tribe in Owen Valley, California has recently installed a hoop greenhouse and a water harvesting swell as part of its Sustainable Food System Development Project.
The project aims to build a self-sustaining agricultural ecosystem on the reservation, which will increase the community’s access to locally grown food and their knowledge of sustainable gardening practices and native plants.
Native American communities are often isolated from food retailers that offer healthy food options, such as whole grains and fresh produce. Historically, land and water use policies rerouted natural resources—that tribes relied upon to grow and raise their own food—to incoming settlers. Without a way to raise their own food, tribal diets have been replaced by the unhealthy food aid from the federal government that were frequently sent to reservations.
Native Americans share with the general population many of the same leading causes of death, but at much higher occurrence rates (up to 20 percent greater). Over the past 30 years, obesity rates have increased in the Native American population, and studies indicate that many diseases among the leading causes of death for Native Americans are directly associated with the development of obesity. Moreover, type II diabetes is endemic in Native American communities, indicating that their diets may be the primary contributor to the rates of diabetes in their communities.
The Sustainable Food System Development Project has already planted 40 fruit trees, a food forest, demonstration permaculture gardens, and established an organic seed bank. The demonstration gardens will teach other tribal members how to utilize sustainable gardening techniques in their own gardens, and the produce grown from the trees and the gardens will continue to provide food to the community on regular basis.
One of the project’s aims is to preserve the water quality in Owen Valley by restoring and preserving the soil and reducing nonpoint source pollution—pollution from diffuse and cumulative sources, such as pesticides—surrounding the water supply.
Alan Bacock, director of the project, said the project is currently “looking at ways to not need fertilizers by creating your own compost and planting companion plants that can help each other beneficially—instead of needing to use herbicides and chemicals on the land.”
The project also provides entrepreneurial opportunities through a farmers’ market—which debuted this year—and a tool-lending shed for the community garden and greenhouse. The farmers’ market serves as venue for tribal members to sell excess produce grown from their gardens.
“There are divisions between tribal and non-tribal community—we exist together and yet we have things that continue to keep us apart. The non-Native community was hesitant to come onto the reservation at first, but as the farmer’s market continued, non-Native people started coming to the farmer’s market and enjoying themselves there. It’s not there yet, but it’s the start to a healing process and people healing with one another through their interactions at the farmer’s market,” said Bacock.
The project’s permaculture garden will overlap onto an ancient irrigation system the tribe uncovered—in the process of starting the garden—that had been used by their ancestors. Bacock said the Owen Valley was initially swampland before the aqueducts built to redirect much its original water supply to the Los Angeles area transformed it into an arid valley.
The tribe has recently installed a water harvesting swell that will allow the soil to slowly and evenly absorb the water provided for vegetation. The recently installed hoop greenhouse is equipped with a drip irrigation system, which will help grow crops throughout most of the year. Both installations will allow the tribe to conserve and make the most efficient use of its water supply.
The First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) awarded the Sustainable Food System Development Project a US $37,500 grant last spring. For the last decade, the FNDI has been awarding grants to tribal food system projects that address food insecurity, promote better health and nutrition, and catalyze economic development in Native American communities