Food for Thought: Food Security vs. Food Sovereignty

Solar Warrior Farm

by Jamie Folsom, National Director

Most of us know the story of teaching someone to fish. But the fight against hunger has shifted greatly in the last decade. We are telling a new story – a story about sharing skills and knowledge back and forth, respecting and valuing tradition, and recognizing a great opportunity when we see it.

The difference is in the language we use and what we mean when we say “sovereignty” versus “security.” When we hear “security” many of us think of a one-way interaction – I am giving food to you. It is the way government food subsidy programs have typically been designed, particularly in Tribal communities. The focus is often on access to food, no matter where that food came from or how it was produced.

Support Food Sovereignty on the Pine Ridge Reservation! VOTE for Solar Warrior Farm in the Gardens for Good contest.

Food sovereignty refers to people determining for themselves who, how and where food is produced for their families and communities. To do this, they must draw upon traditional strengths and ways of knowing, as well as integrate new technologies and new opportunities. This is powerful stuff not only for those communities, but for those who hope to help them.

This is no longer a one-way street, but a call to learn from young people, elders, warriors and mothers. Native people have been successfully producing, preparing, storing food in creative and effective ways for eons. Native people connect with that legacy, and so food sovereignty means more than just getting healthier food on the table. It is reclaiming traditions and teaching others because in the current era, we are all in jeopardy of losing control of the where-how-who of our basic food/water needs.

Trees, Water & People (TWP) fully supports the rights of Native communities to self-determination through food sovereignty. We changed the name of our program to reflect our commitment to the bigger picture and the realities of the families we work with. We’re not only giving or teaching people to fish, we are working together with them to find better ways to fish so we all benefit in the long run. Yakoke!

To learn more about TWP’s Food Sovereignty Program click here.

TWP Welcomes New Garden Coordinator at Solar Warrior Farm

Ferlin Hopkins
Ferlin Hopkins and National Director, Lacey Gaechter, at the Solar Warrior Farm in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

We are excited to welcome a new member to the Trees, Water & People (TWP) Team! Ferlin Hopkins, our new Garden Coordinator, will be managing the Solar Warrior Farm, located at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

Ferlin grew up throughout the United States and Guam. He is responsible for the horticultural success of Solar Warrior Farm, as well as serving as the volunteer and outreach coordinator for the Food Security Program. Ferlin has a rich knowledge of organic and sustainable farming from several years of working on an organic farm. Before joining TWP, Ferlin was working with the Guam Plant Extinction Prevention Program to identify, locate, and propagate rare and endangered plant species with less than fifty individuals in the wild. He is almost finished with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Guam. In his free time, Ferlin loves to go running, swimming, and hiking.

henry red cloud solar warrior farmThe Food Security Program’s Solar Warrior Farm, located at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, grows a wide variety of native and heirloom fruits and vegetables. We nurture this space with raised garden beds, protected by hoop houses to extend the growing season. These small plots have become living examples that Native Americans can visit and learn from. In addition, we offer the fresh produce, grown at Solar Warrior Farm, to Pine Ridge residents in need.

Help the Food Security Program thrive! Make a donation today.

Notes from the Field: Bursting with Life at Solar Warrior Farm

by Jordan Engel, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center Intern

Solar Warrior Farm
Jordan Engel working the Earth at Solar Warrior Farm

Last week, Lakota Solar Enterprises was on the road representing the tribal renewable energy movement at a photovoltaic training in Carbondale. With Henry and crew back on the reservation now, and newly certified as PV instructors, the wheels of that movement are turning ever faster as we prepare for a busy summer at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.

At the top of our to-do list is completing the construction of the training annex – a second Quonset hut with a classroom, kitchen, and dormitory that will significantly increase the number of trainees that the Tribal Program can accommodate. In the first two weeks of July, droves of volunteers will be coming to the center with hammers in hand to help build the interior walls of this new building.

cellulose insulation
Applying cellulose insulation to the Red Cloud Training Annex

Of course, it wouldn’t be ready for this phase of construction without first insulating the heck out of the exterior walls. The RCREC insulation of choice: cellulose. Lakota Solar Enterprises fortunately has all the equipment necessary to do cellulose installations including a mechanical hopper, a water pump, hoses, and a horse trailer full of cardboard (cellulose insulation) that is sitting outside of the new Annex. This cardboard comes from the only recycling program on the entire Pine Ridge Reservation, and is coordinated by Henry.

The process of installation is usually quite simple. However, the Quonset hut does present some challenges. The vaulted steel walls require a wet-spray application as opposed to the much simpler dry fill that is often done with cellulose. Our spray is mixed with standard wood glue to ensure that the fibers adhere to each other. Wet cellulose needs time to dry before another layer can be added and that can take time. Eventually, the walls we be layered with 3 to 6 inches of insulation with an overall R-value between 11 and 23. The ingredients in the cellulose are just recycled paper content and borates, which act dually as a fire retardant and deterrent to nesting rodents. Converted horse trailers at RCREC are now a collection spot for used cardboard that will eventually be ripped apart to make more cellulose. Using local materials to create local jobs to build local sustainable infrastructure – now that’s progress.

Food Security Program
Food security begins with the youth!

On the gardening front, the Solar Warrior Farm recently got a huge facelift. Birch Hincks and a group of volunteers drove up from Colorado last week with a truck full of lovely starts donated by the Plantorium nursery in LaPorte, CO. Together with a group of Pine Ridge residents, we planted rows and rows of heirloom tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and zucchini (which we now call Sioux-kini: a terrible pun, I know). Inter-planting crops is part of our strategy for maximizing the amount of fertile garden space that we have. In one row alone we have tomatoes, carrots, peppers, sunflowers, horsetail, and sage all growing together. The first three were planted by us Solar Warriors, and the rest was nature’s doing.

Mary and Jordan forage for timpsila (Lakota for wild prairie turnips) in the hills above White Clay Creek.

More and more, I’m slowly learning the involved ways in which the Lakota interact with the environment. Though agriculture was never part of the old ways here, plants have always played an important role in Lakota culture. As my friend Mary took me up in the hills above White Clay Creek to forage for timpsila (Lakota for wild prairie turnips), we ended up finding much more: wild plums, chokecherries, soapweed yucca (used for bathing), coneflowers, and the list goes on. The knowledge of how to use these native species has been forgotten by most, but has been preserved in Lakota tradition. I am trying to document this knowledge as best I can with the hope of eventually producing a small guide to identifying and using traditional Lakota plants.

The garden is now bursting with plant life, but plants aren’t all that we’re growing on the Solar Warrior Farm. Composting worms, a garden’s best friend, recently found a new home in a re-purposed freezer next to the garden. Vermicompost is nothing new at the center. Henry kept worms to eat his kitchen scraps for quite a while but unfortunately the flood in February 2011 that did so much damage on the reservation also drowned our subterranean friends. With drainage holes drilled into the freezer, the new worms should be comfortable and hopefully they will produce lots of castings that we can harvest and use to fertilize the garden next spring. Maintaining soil fertility each season is an absolute must.

milk jug irrigation
Milk jug irrigation!

We’re not expecting a flood anytime soon, so we have to be careful about how we use our water. Unless Wakia Oyate, the Thunder People, bring rain from the West soon, we are in for a dry summer. An old method of water conservation commonly used in arid regions of Africa is clay pot irrigation. The pots are buried in garden beds and filled with water. The water then slowly seeps out through the porous clay directly to the plants’ roots and prevents waste in the topsoil. We’ve adapted that on the farm, substituting pots for reused milk jugs with holes drilled throughout. There are a variety of methods that can be used for sustainable agriculture on the plains, and on our educational farm we hope to inspire those who are interested to explore these methods.

Stay tuned for more updates…until then please visit our website to learn more about our Food Security Program and the Tribal Renewable Energy Program.

Notes from the Field: Transforming a Food Desert

by Jordan Engel, Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center Intern

A late afternoon storm approaches RCREC

There are storm clouds moving in from the Black Hills as I write this and we’re all hoping for a little bit of rain tonight here on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  By and by, the new TWP-sponsored Solar Warrior Farm is off to a quick start. The farm consists of two greenhouses and a half-acre, fenced-in garden, which was planted in the late spring by a generous crew of volunteers. Pastured buffalo roamed this land for many years before its current incarnation as a garden, leaving behind loamy, fertile soil. To the north of the farm, White Clay Creek supports the growth of large cottonwoods along its banks that create a much needed windbreak. And of course, a good southern exposure lets in the bright South Dakota sun that  gives life to the variety of plants we have here.

The 3 Sisters (corn, squash, & bean) pop out of the ground in all their glory!

The three sisters – corn, squash and beans (or wagmíza, wagmú and omníča in Lakota) – are the mainstays of the garden. Historically, these three crops came to the northern plains through an extensive trade network with distant agricultural tribes. Native Americans from Mexico to Canada grew the three sisters together because of their mutually beneficial properties. Corn stalks provide a natural trellis for the bean vines to climb, beans are nitrogen-fixing legumes which add nutrients to the soil, and the broad squash leaves cover the ground, retaining moisture and keeping weeds down. There were also many plants that the plains tribes traditionally foraged for in the wild – from herbs like sage and wild bergamot to fruit like chokecherries and buffalo berries. These native plants all have a place in our symbolically medicine wheel shaped herb garden. We owe this all to the hard work and determination of many solar warriors, because of whom the farm is slowly growing into an oasis of healthy food and natural medicine.

The Sioux Nation Grocery in Pine Ridge, the only grocery store on a reservation the size of Connecticut.

That is all a huge accomplishment if you consider the environment within which the farm exists. With only one grocery store on a reservation nearly the size of Connecticut, Pine Ridge is a food desert – a place where healthy, affordable food is hard to obtain. When I first came to the reservation last month, that very grocery store had just reopened after a week of being shutdown because they had been caught routinely selling expired meat. Many Pine Ridge residents lack access to transportation, compounding the issue of food security. Healthy food is always scarce here (as reflected by a diabetes rate that is 800% higher than the national average), but that is especially true at the end of each month when government-supplied commodity food begins to run low.

Antwon Red Cloud is learning to grow his own healthy food at the Solar Warrior Farm.

Commodity food is distributed to low-income families on reservations throughout the country by the Department of Agriculture at the beginning of each month, though it’s clearly not enough to last anybody through that entire period.  The USDA has contracts with farmers to buy surplus produce, the purpose of which is to avoid national price collapse. Commodity foods have usually been unhealthy, highly processed canned good with corn starch, sugar and salt– all things that were never in the traditional Lakota diet. In the old days, I’m told, commodity food consisted of a can of pure lard with a USDA label slapped on it. And so members of the Oglala Lakota tribe are looking to the alternatives. Buffalo ranching is becoming increasingly common, and more and more people are looking into growing their own food. The Solar Warrior Farm is pioneering this movement on the reservation and we hope that it continues to spread.

There are, however, many obstacles to growing food on Pine Ridge. Because small-scale vegetable gardening is so uncommon, there are very few options for purchasing seeds, tools, and other necessary gardening equipment. Most of our plants were transported here from Colorado by TWP volunteers. For others on the reservation, that is not an option. Another obstacle is the wind. While the regional abundance of bright sunlight and strong wind is terrific for renewable energy, the combination of the two accelerates the evaporative process and dries out the garden.

Watering is a team effort at Solar Warrior Farm

Rather than fight nature, we are trying to work with it by planting more trees around the garden that will block that wind. Still, the most limiting factor is water scarcity. With infrequent rains, the garden is partially irrigated by drip line and partially watered by hand. Our water comes from a well that draws from the massive Ogallala Aquifer. Running from Texas to South Dakota, the aquifer is quickly being depleted because of industrial agriculture on the plains and harmful “Use It or Lose It” water rights policies. To combat this environmental catastrophe, the Solar Warrior Farm will soon put a variety of measures into place for water conservation, catchment, and groundwater recharge. As straw is locally available and inexpensive here, we are continuing to mulch the garden with it to retain precious moisture, reduce evaporation, and minimize the growth of weeds. Also in the works is a rain barrel workshop at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center for later this month.

If you would like to visit the Solar Warrior Farm, we have weekly volunteer gardening days every Friday throughout the summer. Come pull some weeds and learn about what we are doing for food security on the Pine Ridge Reservation. To learn more about how you can help please email Lacey Gaechter, International Director, at or call (970) 484-3678. You can also visit our “Volunteer Opportunities” page to sign-up for volunteer email alerts.

Jordan Engel, RCREC Intern, gets his hands dirty in the soils of Solar Warrior Farm.