LCO’s Community Garden Is Stepping Stone to Food Sovereignty

When visiting the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (LCOOCC) in Hayward, Wisconsin, one will notice how sandy the soil is there. The last glacier shaped the rolling hills and open meadows, creating rivers, streams, lakes, and bogs. The LCOOCC campus grounds are filled with the glacial till of sand and gravel.

Like many other Native American peoples, the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (LCO) were pushed onto a reservation with less than desirable lands. Although the reservation is within their traditional homeland, the band suffered losses of prime wild rice beds, berry patches, sugar bushes, and hunting grounds.

Their original village, called Pahquahwong, was established in 1745 on the shores of the winding Chippewa river. After the federal government permitted a power company to build a dam in 1921, 15,300 acres of the river valley were flooded. The LCO people were forced to relocate to higher ground and leave behind wild rice beds, fertile gardens, homes, schools, stores, cemeteries, and historical features left by the ancients.

Today, LCOOCC is taking steps to address the reservation’s soil quality. As a land grant institution, the college has formed partnerships with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and various agencies. One of the collaborations is a soil study of the region, as the LCO are seeking to amend their sandy soil so the community gardens will have more yield.

The college also has its own robust community program: the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College Sustainable Agriculture research Station (LSARS), which is located on a 200-acre farm near the college campus. LSARS has many off shoots and programs that benefit both students and the community.

The mission of LSARS includes having “LCOOCC students learn and work with staff, other students, community members, and elders in a sustainable agricultural setting to increase access to healthy, nutritious foods,” according to the LSARS Farm Plan. And the college recently supplied LSARS with a new commercial kitchen complete with pots, pans, canning supplies, and dehydrators for food processing. Community members are welcome to process their produce for home use and local markets.

“A few years ago we had a beginner producer program, funded by the USDA Socially Disadvantaged Farmer rancher Program that was for working with families and providing education and awareness about growing their food,” explains Amber Marlow, the college’s dean of continuing education and customized training. “They could then sell it in some outlet like a store, restaurant, or farmers market.”

But the college goes a step further and helps community members with meal planning, learning new recipes, and cooking what they harvest. “We’ve been doing outreach with our high school with having their students just come to the college for ‘Savor the Flavor of LCO events,” says Marlow. “We want them to have the farm-to-table concept and experience. They work with our chefs and then they cook their own lunch. It’s kind of a recruitment tool for our Indigenous Culinary Arts Certificate Program, but the students gain some awareness about cooking locally produced food.”

As more community members take control for growing and producing their own food, they take part in achieving food sovereignty for their tribal community. The college’s new president, Dr. Russell Swagger, says tribal communities are resilient and generally take care of each other. “I have real hope for tribal communities. There are a lot of things that we’re doing, like food sovereignty programs that are right on,” the president says. “If people had choices . . . most of the time they’ll choose the healthy food.”

While LCOOCC is taking tangible steps to improve health, life-expectancy rates, and providing for local families, climate change presents a much larger challenge and is increasingly affecting the LCO community. In recent years, unusually bad storms damaged garden projects on the LCOOCC farm. Extreme swings in wet years and dry years are affecting the environment and water levels, according to local land-management studies.

But Swagger has confidence that people will look to tribal communities and ask, “What are tribal communities doing that’s different than other communities?” He says it’s really not about doing things differently, it’s about relearning things that tribal communities lost over the years. “One of the things that’s really amazing about tribal colleges is that the colleges are able to showcase all of the good things that are happening in tribal communities,” Swagger explains. “For the things not working so well, we’re part of the solution and strengthening leadership, strengthening governance, and educating people so they know what they can do.”

Originally written for the Tribal College Journal Volume 30, No. 3 - Spring 2019

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