Increasing Micro-Farming Opportunities on Pine Ridge Reservation

South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest areas in the United States, with few natural resources and no industry. Life expectancy on the reservation is 20 years lower than the national average and the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates unemployment rates at greater than 80 percent. Alcoholism and drug addiction also present significant challenges.

Jason Schoch, of South Dakota State University’s extension office, began working with the Lakota people of Pine Ridge more than 16 years ago. Schoch recognized that a functioning local food system and small agriculture could greatly improve mental and physical health and quality of life for the Pine Ridge community. Together with Patricia Hammond, a Lakota native, Schoch began introducing community gardens on the reservation. As interest grew, Schoch and Hammond became excited about the potential economic opportunities of small-scale farming on the reservation, but they also recognized the importance of listening to the community.

Team members Jason Schoch, Ted Pourier and Patricia Hammond are creating accessible garden beds for disabled Army veteran Melanie Janis.

“The majority of Lakota people we spoke with told us that large-scale commodity agriculture was almost impossible for them to get into, and frankly, it wasn’t where their interests lay,” said Schoch. “What they really wanted was to use agriculture to feed themselves and their families, and to begin addressing hunger issues within the community.”

With help and funding from nonprofit groups like AgrAbility, Schoch and Hammond identified 30 beginning farmers with pre-existing disabilities and began building the infrastructure needed to get them growing. But the impacts of the pandemic and grant limitations slowed their progress and prevented them from working with community youth.

“AgrAbility is an amazing program, but our grant didn’t allow us to focus on youth programs, which we believe to be essential,” said Schoch. “It was also difficult for just two people to cover all of the needs at Pine Ridge. CoBank and Farm Credit Services of America stepped in with a $200,000 grant that allowed us to hire additional staff, extend our youth programs and to put more focus on growing local, traditional foods.”

Tony LaDeaux plans to grow fresh produce and traditional plants in the wheelchair-accessible hoop house built for him by the project team.

“We now have a team of seven, and six of us are Lakota natives,” said Hammond. “We’ve been able to give dependable part-time jobs to some of our youth who are building hoop houses and raised garden beds and learning about small-scale farming. One of our staff, Elizabeth Charging Crow, is learning to care for pigs and is interested in starting her own pork farm.”

With additional staff and resources, the team built handicapped-accessible garden beds for disabled Army veteran Melanie Janis. Janis used to maintain a small, in-ground garden to provide fresh produce for herself and her grandchildren. But in recent years, gardening has been difficult. With help from the staff supported by the CoBank and Farm Credit Services of America grant, the team have established enough accessible beds that Janis will be able to grow enough to feed her entire family.

The team also installed a wheelchair-accessible hoop house and drip irrigation system for Tony LaDeaux, a double-amputee who wants to grow produce and traditional plants.

“I want to grow food for myself and to give away to others,” said LaDeaux. “I’ll also grow sweet grass, which is an important part of our sacred ceremonies and medicinal teas. Getting my hands back in the dirt helps to mellow me out and connects me to the land and our traditions.”

Chris and Bryce Valandra and Elizabeth Charging Crow are building raised garden beds to support the new farm to school program at Little Wound School.

One of the most exciting efforts in development is a new farm to school program at Little Wound School, which serves 900 K-12 Lakota students. Together with Glorianna Under-Baggage, administrator of the school’s extension program, the team is establishing a pilot program with 18 students. A new hoop house is nearing completion and students will plant and maintain the garden. Eventually, additional gardens will feature traditional and medicinal plants.

“In the next year, the farm to school program will really flower,” said Schoch. “Several young people have expressed a strong interest in agriculture or food-related businesses. And as all of our programs grow, more of the community will be able to see what is possible. For us, and for the Pine Ridge community, this is only the beginning.”

This story was originally published in the CoBank 2021 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.