$1 million grant propels joint Indian farm/university project

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published April 1, 1995  | April 1995 issue

What was once self-sustaining land for the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Tribe may again materialize thanks to a five-year, $1 million grant from the Farmers Home Administration.

Using the agricultural expertise of faculty at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the land and traditions of the LCO Tribe, the project team has three goals: to create a self-sustaining food and energy production capability on the reservation, to achieve a long- term farmland and natural resources management plan, and to develop a long-term educational program that will ensure the survival and self- sufficiency of the system.

Called Project GROWTH: Guiding Resource Opportunities With Tribal Heritage, the program will focus on integrating traditional Ojibwa farming philosophies and practices with contemporary farm production and marketing methods.

One of the first projects involves replanting wild strawberries and blueberries that once grew naturally on the reservation, located southeast of Hayward. Organically grown vegetables to feed the reservation's 3,000 residents will be planted as well. Larry Swain, community development specialist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, says the tribe has also expressed interest in raising game, like red deer, bison or ostrich.

The tribe already operates a cranberry bog and a fish hatchery that replenishes area lakes after spearfishing season. Swain suggests value-added ventures could grow out of the farm program, like dehydrating cranberries to sell as craisins, or dehydrating vegetables for soup mixes.

Commercial growing operations that might evolve from the initial project could involve one-third of the reservation population, Swain says. "The ultimate outcome could mean jobs for everyone looking for a job—all reservation-based."

University faculty will also study the feasibility of wind generation of electricity and other ways to make the tribe energy self-sufficient.

To support the project and ensure ongoing resource management, reservation youth may earn a bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, following coursework at the LCO Ojibwa Community College. Swain anticipates that between 10 and 20 students will participate in the "two-plus-two" curriculum each year, with the first group possibly enrolling this fall.

Swain says the project has the potential to apply community- supported agriculture techniques and non-industrial sustainable agriculture in new ways and then transfer the technology to small farmers throughout the state.

"The opportunities are astounding, providing learning for both groups," says Leslie Ramczyk, interim project director for the LCO Ojibwa Community College.

Kathy Cobb