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.