Joseph Rousu is the founder and Chief Operations Officer of Ogema Organics. He is a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and resident of the White Earth Reservation. An earlier version of Joseph’s story originally aired on Minnesota Public Radio’s Climate Cast show and shared through our e-communications, however Joseph wanted to tell a more full version of his story, one that shares the hope and abundance in the midst of our changing climate. We are honored to share the rest of his story with you…
I am a traditional harvester of wild rice, maple syrup, furbearers, and I make my living off of the land.
It’s very difficult to live a traditional Anishinaabe lifestyle without noticing the impacts of climate change.
Maple production is very dependent on weather conditions and consistently since 1997 our springtimes have come sooner and sooner every year and are much more dramatic. We go from cold to hot and we no longer experience the weather patterns that the trees need in order to produce their sweet sap. The scope is limited for maple harvest: we can expect two solid weeks, but 40 years ago we would expect a harvest to last an entire month. So, we have lost two weeks within that time period. Now, the springs are coming sooner, and the summer is shifted earlier. If we do not get freezing temperatures at night the trees use sugars, so you need that freezing, thawing action to capture the syrup, otherwise the plants use it up. This is all a very critical factor in a reasonable harvest.
This January we will have temperatures in the 40s, and that could trigger the trees to start running. A person has to be ready within a day’s notice to do this work and to get all taps and equipment ready to go. Now, you have to always be ready, because the nature of the season is unpredictable.This is the new normal. How can we be ready?
I don’t know how things will change this coming spring, but the first thing to do is to create food sovereignty and security for the people of White Earth. Minnesota has one of the shortest growing seasons, with less than 100 days of frost-free weather, if we are lucky. We are currently working with the U of M Extension offices to create an infrastructure of deep winter greenhouses that are solar passive and geothermal. Our first prototype of a deep winter greenhouse has supplemental energy and is being tested now. It is more than just addressing food stability through indoor agriculture, which is a big part of our job here, but also to raise the mindfulness of individuals and how they can positively impact the environment. Working together on a collective level to address climate change has to start with mindfulness at the individual level.
The White Earth Reservation has been deemed by the USDA as “food insecure,” meaning that from any given point across the reservation, you have to travel at least 60 miles round trip to access fresh produce. At White Earth Reservation, three state counties intersect and all are dependent on large agricultural food commodities. Mahnomen county operates completely within reservation boundaries — and in that county, Naytahwaush village has the highest suicide and unemployment rates and lowest income per capita nationwide. This is life or death. It has been said that we are first nation people living as second class citizens, and living as though we are in a third world country. This should not be.
White Earth is referred to as a “checkerboard” reservation because of the current land ownership pattern. Tribal members make up less than 7% of the land ownership, with the majority made up of large commodity farming operations. This current pattern of land use has not set us up for success. There has been a significant loss of access to traditional harvest areas, and in it a loss of culture, identity, and sense of place. We are now re-establishing and forming new traditional harvest areas which in turn builds a sense of abundance, security, and pride for the community.
I believe that each individual has their purpose and reason for being here.
We must begin the work of healing with this understanding and get started by simply taking care of each other. Part of the work here is to provide access to healthy and nutritious foods within each village. At Ogema Organics, we are supporting teaching people to grow their own food, providing the space to do so, and empowering people with the tools and skills needed to nourish health and spirit.
Reclaiming what we used to have is a declaration of who we are. I am concerned about our elders. Currently there are few young people to care for the elders. It is very sad to see parents outlive their children, due to the drugs and gang culture that our young people face. Within the next generation, we will see a shift in our community. Our youth of today will grow to be mindful and caring adults — they will be a whole generation willing to stand up for what is true. This is the vision of the future that I see. Today, many youth don’t have family or role models to emulate in learning these values. But when we take time to teach them, in the future these values will still be there, and we won’t have to worry about who will take care of the elders because it will already be done.
Last winter, I was invited by my friend Melvin to share my vision with the elders in the senior home on the reservation. The elders who live there eat meals that are made up of USDA commodity foods; canned vegetables and canned meats. I sat and had lunch with them, listened to them, and told them about this vision. I asked, “Would you rather eat this canned food on your plates or have fresh produce even in the winter”? The elders were listening, a lot of people were excited and this one little old lady said, “You better make damn sure you do this.” I knew I couldn’t let any of them down.
I felt really good when I got a letter of support from the elders councils saying that they supported deep winter greenhouse infrastructure throughout the reservation. Since then we have been testing a prototype deep winter greenhouse. It has been a long process, but this week we will harvest the first of the greens, cucumbers, onions, and peppers. My plan is to harvest it and bring a bowl full of greens to the senior home. I am excited to do this. This first harvest is a proving ground to the elders, the ones who showed their support in the beginning. The ones who are still there. My friend Melvin passed away last spring. For me it is more than a first harvest — it is a bowl of hope and promise of more that is to come.
My vision of the future is that everyone will have access to fresh produce on the reservation, meaning that it is produced less than 5 miles from their home.
Reclaiming our traditional harvest areas and teaching people gardening will encourage our youth, it will build our sense of security as a community, and it will teach patience, responsibility, how to care. I think these values will be carried on, and it will go with our people wherever we go.
After the first harvest here, we will refine the prototype. On the horizon there are 9 deep winter greenhouses planned, and we are working with land authority to get this approved. Volunteers are ready to begin training, once greenhouses are finished. Each village will be scaled so that each family will have their own garden space. We are looking to serve 7,500 homes across the reservation. Slowly but surely they will be completed. Each family will tend their produce, while learning the necessary skills of harvesting, how to prevent food waste, preserve food, cook with fresh produce, and create value added products. Each community will have kitchen space as well. These are big dreams but they are more than attainable. It’s a lot of work but it is my privilege.
Growing up, my dad always instilled in my siblings and me the delicate balance of life; he showed us this in the woods. How the beaver controls the water flow, which controls how the rice grows, and these types of things. The wolves control the herbivore population throughout the land and prevent the spread of diseases. I learned that everything has its balance. Everything has its place. When we disrupt that, who knows what else happens — who can truly foresee the consequences of our disruption.
Ogema Organics is a native food sovereignty initiative on White Earth, or Gaa-waabaabiganikaag. To learn more about Ogema Organics and stay connected, visit https://ogemaorganics.wordpress.com/.