A graduate of Delaware University’s Organic Farming Certificate Program, in partnership with Rodale Institute, is connecting the past, present and future generations one seed at a time. Jessika Greendeer, an Americorp Vista Worker, is changing the lives of fellow members of the Ho Chunk Nation by teaching them how to grow their own food and dispelling the myth of needing a large farm to do so. Her accomplishments, thus far, trace back to the valuable knowledge and experiences she acquired during her participation in the Organic Farming Certificate Program.
Greendeer’s initial inspiration for learning more about organic agriculture stems from attending Rodale Institute’s Annual Field Day a few years ago. She was so impressed with all of the research projects on the farm such as the Farming Systems Trial, America’s longest side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture. Rodale Institute’s mission to improve the health and wellbeing of people and the planet through organic leadership was also the key message that spoke to Greendeer that day.
Jessika Greendeer pictured with sister, Kristen Greendeer, also a graduate of Delaware University’s Organic Farming Certificate Program.
This led her to inquiring about the educational programs offered at Rodale Institute. With a desire to learn and become self-sufficient, she decided to apply to the Organic Farming Certificate Program. As an Army veteran, Jessika used her GI Bill to participate in the one-year certificate program in conjunction with Delaware Valley University and Rodale Institute. In the program, students study organic agriculture in both the classroom setting and on the farm.
Just a couple weeks after attending Rodale Institute’s Field Day, she found herself driving a moving truck from Wisconsin into Pennsylvania to begin a new chapter of her life.
“Participating in this program had a huge impact on my life,” said Greendeer. “The largest takeaway was that with all of the knowledge learned, I found that everything was uniquely tied together showing that one aspect of farming relies on another.”
Upon completing the program, Greendeer returned home to Wisconsin with newfound skills and a changed perspective on the role of farming in her life.
“Nobody cares if I live off the grid or if I own my own homestead or if I grow and raise my own food. I really needed to take a step back and look at the entire big picture. How was what I was doing going to better serve mankind?” said Greendeer.
A few days after being reunited with her Ho Chunk family, Greendeer made a discovery that would lead her to the answer she had been looking for. She found mason jars and tin cans of seeds from previous generations that her late father had saved.
“I tried to get smart on seed saving as quickly as I possibly could,” said Greendeer. “But the more I learned about seed saving, the further I got away from actually planting seeds. I needed to find a place to grow seeds.”
Greendeer was eager to get her hands in the soil again and plant the seeds her late father left for her.
“After we started growing my father’s seeds, word spread and then I started getting seeds from other families. They had either stopped growing or had no place to grow them,” said Greendeer.
People have brought her coffee cans, mason jars, and tin cans filled with seeds that family members had saved years before. With seeds full of history flowing into her home, Greendeer was inspired to start the Village Corn Program and work in the community gardens for the Ho Chunk Nation.
Through the Village Corn Program, Greendeer is working to reconnect fellow members of the Ho Chunk Nation with their tribes own varieties of corn. Greendeer has implemented seed saving as a major part of her program. Each village stewards one variety of corn and will continue to grow a variety every year as a community.
“We are trying to reconnect the current generations back to what previous generations did,” said Greendeer. “The main goal is for each village to adopt a variety of corn and collectively they’ll all grow that same corn to prevent cross pollination with other varieties,” said Greendeer.
Then the seeds are saved from the growing season for another year. In the following year, the village can grow some of the seeds saved or they can select another variety, but they all have to agree upon which variety is planted.
“Not only is seed saving another form of self-sufficiency, being able to grow your own food and save your own seed and know exactly where everything comes from and how it was treated or its lack of treatment is another form of food sovereignty,” said Greendeer.
The corn fields and community gardens span from Milwaukee to Black River Falls in Wisconsin. Of the 10 locations, seven fields are for growing corn, and the remaining three are designated as community gardens. The community gardens are similar to a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) environment in which the harvest is shared within a community.
“The reason I was passionate about the community gardens was regardless of people’s income or background, I believe they all should have access to real food,” said Greendeer. “They’re all getting their own education on how to garden, but then also have access to free food.”
The community gardens provide people with an opportunity to learn and harvest vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce, beets, squash, sweet corn and onions.
“My whole intent with the community gardens is to teach people how to grow food on their own and also show people that they don’t need to have a farm in order to grow food,” said Greendeer.
From traveling many miles to tend to the community gardens and corn fields, Greendeer’s 12 hour plus days are full of long, hard work.
“There are times that I crawl home at the end of the day physically beat down, but my heart and my spirit are still with my work,” said Greendeer. “I love being able to be part of the food chain and get my Ho Chunk relatives into growing something and eating something they grew with their own hands.”
Knowing that Native American populations in her ancestral homeland and across the country are vulnerable to food insecurity, Greendeer believes it is important to teach others about organic agriculture and the benefits of seed saving. Her goal is to get people away from oppression foods and get them back to eating their culturally appropriate foods.
When Greendeer first began learning about seed saving, she saw it as an essential skill to have for food sovereignty. She has found that seed saving is much more than just “saving seeds” from year to year.
“These seeds are what my ancestors grew and that’s what they were raised on and those seeds were found in some of their belongings that were lost during forced removals, so there’s this huge historical tie to them that I have to be respectful of,” said Greendeer. “We all started from seed, and I think that’s what has been so special about this. Everything I plant is part of life. Being able to be a part of that system, has had such a huge impact and profound effect on the way I look at farming now.”
Greendeer is honored to plant seeds saved from generations before her and have the opportunity to continue saving seeds. She feels that the seeds do not belong to her; the seeds belong to the generations of the future, unborn children.
“There are so many mysteries in life, and the greatest mystery should not be what it is that we are eating,” said Greendeer. “Food tastes better when your grow it yourself, and you appreciate everything that went into creating that meal for yourself or for your family.”
Greendeer is passionate as ever about organic farming and food sovereignty. The knowledge and hands-on experience that the Organic Farming Certificate Program provided her with has led her to the destined path she is now on. Through the Village Corn Program and community gardens, Greendeer is growing the past, present and future of the Ho Chunk Nation.
This is a guest post by Communications Intern Amanda Bialek.