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.