Menominee get $1M grant for agriculture

Tribe hopes to get people back to roots
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

KESHENA — Efforts to restore good health on the Menominee Reservation — and get tribal members back to their roots in the process — got a shot in the arm recently.

The Menominee Tribe received a $1 million Community Impact Grant to be used over the next five years from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. The grant starts Jan. 1, 2020.

The tribe’s agriculture and food systems department plans to use the funding to develop a tribal food code and promote healthy food consumption, as well as to provide start-up funds for those who live on the reservation and want to practice farming. The funding will also allow the department to “bring on the rest of the team” to provide those resources, according to department director Gary Besaw.

“The department of agriculture is here to provide the legal infrastructure, which means all of the zoning, the environmental and other types of laws that would serve to assist tribal farmers, agriculturalists and home gardeners in their efforts,” Besaw said.

He noted that the resources could include helping people to write grants or to find alternative sources of funding. Developing sources of agri-forestry, horticulture and permaculture are one of the tribe’s goals.

“In a certain sense, we view ourselves as another agriculture department, and we’re in the process of creating those regs, similar to what the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and those around us have,” he said.

The ultimate goal for the tribe, though, is to serve as resource for those tribal members who seek to be self-sufficient when it comes to feeding themselves, Besaw said.

“The end goal is that we want to re-create a food system here,” he said. “We’re still considered a food desert here. We don’t have a lot of the farming and a lot of growth resource that provides the fresh produce and fresh meats. We have the Save-a-Lot (grocery store), but otherwise, we have to go off-reservation (for food needs).”

Besaw noted that there is historical evidence that ancient Menominee worked as farmers, noting the raised garden beds discovered near the Menominee River, which once served as part of the tribe’s ancestral land, as well as the forest areas on current tribal land.

“We were told by some Western scientists, ‘Sorry, Menominee, you’re not sophisticated enough to have miles of raised garden beds. We don’t believe it was you,’” Besaw said. “Well, we proved it was us, and we were indeed sophisticated enough.

“We’ve told people that we were more than hunters and fishermen, and now we have proof.”

The reservation land is set in trust by the federal government for the tribe, and there are policies in place that allow the tribe to lease the land to tribal members to live on. Besaw said the grant would help the tribe to develop policies for farming and other agricultural pursuits on that land, as well.

“When someone wants to use the land, it’s owned collectively, most of it,” Besaw said, noting the exception is the Legend Lake area, which includes land purchased after the federal government terminated the Menominee’s status as a tribe in the 1950s. “We’re putting together the regulations to let them know what they can or cannot do on those areas, and this grant will help us determine, based on community input, what our new zoning laws and use laws should look like.”

Currently, the tribe has piecemeal codes for food safety, according to Besaw, with some regulations in the tribe’s environmental codes and some in the health department codes. The grant would help to establish a uniform code in the ag department and provide the resources, like food safety inspectors, to make sure policies are followed.

“We would make sure nothing conflicts and that everything makes sense,” Besaw said.

Menominee County, which includes 99% of the reservation, has traditionally ranked at the bottom of state health rankings, something Besaw and the tribe hope to reverse with this return to Menominee traditions. The director noted that several generations ago, the Menominee were among the healthiest people in Wisconsin.

Besaw said that the tribe could look at doing some things similar to what the city of Shawano has done in terms of agricultural policies.

“We need to do like Shawano did to rezone and change our laws to allow poultry and beekeeping, horticulture on residential land,” he said.

The tribe also plans to work with the University of Wisconsin to provide training and certification to farmers in order to help sell their goods not only to people on the reservation but in the surrounding areas, as well, Besaw said. The tribe wants to make sure its people have a variety of healthy foods available to eat, he said.

“We know we’re competing with the McDonald’s and the Fritos and the Hardee’s and all types of things in this world,” Besaw said. “We’re trying to make sure we grow a healthy variety of products and then show them how to process them, whether it be canning or freezing or smoking or drying.”

The tribe’s effort seemed a perfect fit for what the Wisconsin Partnership Program is trying to do.

“The health of a community, like a building, depends on a strong and stable foundation,” said Dr. Amy Kind, associate professor of medicine and chair of the Wisconsin Partnership Program’s oversight and advisory committee. “We know access to healthy food, access to health care, quality education and strong social supports are a few of the many factors that strengthen this foundation and contribute to positive health outcomes for everyone.”