Sowing the seeds of sustainable agriculture

Ryan Winn

The Menominee word for garden is mōnahekāēhsaeh — which directly translates to “little field or farm.” For Dr. Frank Kutka, the diminutive suffix “saeh” offered him both a lesson and an opportunity to use humor.

“Once I recognized that ‘saeh’ meant ‘little,’ I added it to words and names to tease people,” Kutka said.

He realized early on that Menominee people only tease those whom they value.

Since his hiring in 2019, Kutka has become a valued member of the College of Menominee Nation faculty — a fact announced publicly when the college’s leadership team presented him with the 2022 Faculty of the Year Award at the school’s May commencement. Kutka was lauded for his work writing and teaching the core curriculum for a bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture, a program that began offering courses in the fall of 2021. Celebrated as a hands-on educator, Kutka described teaching at CMN as his “dream job,” noting that “everything I had ever done led to this position.”

Born in Cudahy and raised on a small farm in Jefferson County, Kutka matriculated at UW-Whitewater, earning his bachelor’s in field biology. He then went to Iowa State for a master’s degree in animal ecology and, later, Cornell for his Ph.D. in plant breeding. Along the way, he did a stint in the Peace Corps, completed water quality research for the University of Minnesota, led research at North Dakota University, held a U.S. Department of Agriculture job in the “Peace Garden State” and started a seed saving business in Door County.

Kutka began at CMN unaware of the tribe’s storied history as sustainers, but he set out to change that by meeting with local knowledge keepers.

“I did a lot of outreach before the pandemic, including at the wonderful quarterly Community Engagement Meetings held at the casino, as well as with the folks at Menīkānaehkem and Project FRESH,” Kutka shared. “I also spoke with groups in the Oneida and Mohican communities and, once COVID hit, we used what we learned to draft a survey that guided our course topics.”

According to Kutka, survey respondents were interested in a program that “had the inclusion of traditional wild harvested food” in addition to conventional modern agricultural practices. There was little interest in what he described as “chemical agriculture,” instead favoring the “Indigenous agriculture” that is at the heart of traditional Menominee food ways.

Kutka spoke in awe of the Menominee forest, noting “it’s the best example of sustainability I’ve seen,” but he further explained that trees weren’t the only thing the tribe thrived at producing.

“The Menominee ancient gardens are astoundingly left out of what some teachers pass along,” Kutka said. “The archaeologists knew they had corn and squash growing up into Michigan. It was the most amazing agroecosystem, and it is absolutely flabbergasting that this isn’t taught elsewhere.”

CMN’s program seeks to not only ensure the history is recognized, but that it’s applied in classrooms and thereby known to graduates who will employ it to make a difference. Kutka revealed, “We took a hard look at the purpose of the whole enterprise. It’s not about combines; it’s about people at the table eating and being healthy. It all starts with human nutrition.”

When asked about his success in course creation, grant writing and project coordination, Kutka deflected by stating, “All I do is reflect what’s around me.” He then elaborated, “I work for the Menominee people. It’s not my program. It’s not for me. It’s all about Menominee people achieving Menominee goals.”

Still, like all programs at CMN, the sustainable agriculture program is open to all students.

“Our graduates will have all kinds of options,” Kutka said. “We prepare students to go directly into production agriculture, graduate school, agency work or environmental protection. We focus on community health, offer business electives, teachings in traditional Indigenous agriculture and also in the technical side of farming.”

Kutka added, “The world is complicated, and agriculture is a complicated part of it.”

Yet, he’s doing his part to demystify the field through both classroom teaching as well as by toiling alongside his students in the soil. Kutka stated that from the get-go, his message to the Menominee nation is that “I’m here to learn, and I’m here to work.”

Of course, the proof is in the harvest. Often when you drive by the campus, you will see Kutka working, laughing and likely teasing his students in CMN’s “little field,” doing his valued part to sow the seeds of sustainable agriculture within the next generation of Menominee farmers.

Ryan Winn teaches communication, English and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For information about the school, visit