Food sovereignty program sees third harvest for Grand Traverse Band
By Jillian Manning | Aug. 13, 2022
The summer harvest is upon us, and out on a farm in Peshawbestown, good things are growing.
The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians’ Agricultural & Food Sovereignty Department took shape in an effort to produce food and food products for the community. The tribe has roughly 1,000 acres of land once in agriculture spread across its six-county service area—which includes Charlevoix, Antrim, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, and Manistee—with the farming focus concentrated on their Peshawbestown gitigaan (garden) and sites in Antrim and Charlevoix.
Will Derouin is the agriculture manager for the department. He’s gearing up for a big week with the GTB’s Kchi Wiikwedong Anishinaabek Maawnjidowin Peshawbestown PowWow this weekend, where he’ll be selling this season’s bounty and offering tours of the farm on Saturday afternoon (Aug. 20).
That intersection of food production and community connection is where the department thrives.
“About 50 percent of this program’s focus is trying to develop economically self-sustaining food production,” Derouin says. “The other 50 percent is more community focused.”
That means distributing fresh produce to tribal elders, youth, and food pantries. Shelving sugar bush products—maple syrup and maple candied nuts—at the tribally-owned gas stations near Leelanau Sands and Turtle Creek casinos. Selling farm-grown goodies to the chefs at Bourbons 72 and CSA-style produce boxes to GTB employees. And even offering all-new traditional agriculture workshops for the community.
“I think a lot of people, particularly people that are interested in local food production and sustainable land management, are really excited that this is an investment that the tribe has made,” says Derouin.
Laying the Groundwork
The Agricultural & Food Sovereignty Department was founded in 2019, making it a fledgling program for the tribe. In the ensuing years, developing infrastructure to support food production has been a primary goal.
“We didn’t have any electricity out [on the grounds of the Peshawbestown farm], no water, no fence,” Derouin says of the early days of getting the garden up and running. “It’s costly to start a new farm,” he acknowledges.
But the investments are paying off, and after a few years of hard work, the fields are looking green. Most of the crops grown are annuals, and Derouin says that “like most market farms, we have dozens of different crops” like carrots, beets, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, broccoli, and the like. There is also produce with cultural significance to the GTB being grown, including a traditional corn variety and a traditional squash variety.
The corn, called mandaamin, was grown for generations by tribal elder Virginia Fields and her family. The department was able to purchase seeds, and today Derouin says there are “really nice stands of this corn” growing at three different tribal farm sites.
“That’s a crop that we’re really proud of and really happy to share with the community. When I started here, I knew corn was important, but I’ve actually been surprised by how people really get excited about it come fall,” Derouin says.
The squash, called gete-okosomin, has millennia of history—Derouin estimates as low as 2,000 and as high as 5,000 years—in the Great Lakes area. Derouin explains that seeds for this particular squash were found in an archeological dig in Wisconsin. After genetic testing confirmed it was an ancient, traditional variety, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians worked to have the seeds repatriated. The GTB then traded potato seeds for the LTBB’s squash seeds, and a new growing endeavor was born.
The Next Season
Education around traditional food is coming to the forefront of the department’s efforts. This month, Derouin says they are offering their first food-centric class, a “foraging open house” that gives tribal members a chance to “build a relationship with our foraging plant relatives” and learn about ethical harvesting, plant identification, and preparation or food storage techniques for foods gathered during the class. One class was held Aug. 6 at the Strongheart Civic Center in Suttons Bay, and another is scheduled for Aug. 17 at the GTB’s Charlevoix satellite office.
Derouin is hoping more grants are on the horizon to expand the department’s reach in the community and to continue building up the farm’s produce portfolio. He explains the food sovereignty program is now more half grant funded, with exciting opportunities like the “recycling and organic waste infrastructure” grant offered through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, which has allowed them to process fish waste from the tribal marina and Carlson’s Fishery into nutrient-dense fertilizer.
As Derouin looks toward the next several years, he sees plenty of opportunity. “The possibilities here just seem endless. There’s so many resources here that the tribe has, and it’s just a matter of maximizing those resources.”
The Kchi Wiikwedong Anishinaabek Maawnjidowin Peshawbestown PowWow will be held Saturday, Aug. 20, and Sunday, Aug. 21, at 2585 Waabno Makwa Rd. in Peshawbestown. To get your maple syrup and candy fix, head to Turtle Creek Market (6038 West Turtle Creek Drive, Williamsburg) or Eagletown Market (2536 N West Bay Shore Dr, Suttons Bay).