Rebel Earth Farms winning grants and cultivating hope

By  Mary C. Hunt

Rebel Earth Farms, a speciality crop producer in Martin, has recently been awarded an SDDA grant and a USDA grant for multiple high tunnel projects. 

The most recent grant, a $7,500 NCR-SARE award, is from the South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA). Rebel Earth is also one of eight specialty crop projects around the state to win funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. Rebel Earth is owned and operated by Patricia Hammond.

Rebel Earth Farms is using a high-tunnel system to cultivate traditional Lakota plants for making herbal teas including Mentha arvensis (Ceyaka or wild mint), Agastache foeniculum (Wahpe Yatapi or anise hyssop), wild strawberries and wild raspberry. The high-tunnel will increase the yield of these crops by extending the growing season.

In writing the grant, Hammond explained, “The Lakota people of the Northern Great Plains once used a variety of native plants in their traditional diets. Today, these plants are disappearing from many Lakota diets and from the landscape of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Over or improper harvesting, pesticide use, invasive species, over grazing and development all threaten these native plants in the wild.”

The traditional plants will also be processed into value-added products  – teas both bagged and loose leaf. Additionally Rebel Earth Farms will set aside a percentage of seeds each growing season to create a source of seeds and plant starts for other Native American prospective and beginning farmers and to help restore these culturally important plant foods to wild areas.

Rebel Earth Farms is working to identify potential markets for the teas, not only local and regional markets but also national and international ones.

Rebel Earth is also the recipient of a $40,000 USDA Speciality Crop Block Grant to fund four high-tunnel projects. Three of them will be open to paid interns who will care for a high tunnel for 32 weeks out of the year and receive a stipend and the opportunity to utilize 25 percent of the high tunnel to start their own business with no risk to the intern. This project will enable landless farmers to work towards opening a business over three years while simultaneously working to acquire land. The interns will be assisted with developing a business plan, learn how to garden in a high tunnel and learn how to start a small scale production farm. 

Partnering with Rebel Earth are two other hubs -- Olceri at Slim Buttes, operated by Bryan Deans, and Feather 2 at Porcupine, operated by Ted Stantze. Together the three hubs comprise Tatanka Ki Owetu (The buffalo come in spring.); they are working, according to Hammond, to bring “Hope” to the Reservation.

Among the goals for the hubs is to get 30 1,200 square foot high tunnels into communities for school, individual and community group gardening. The produce from these high tunnels will be used to sustain families and communities or brought back to the hub and aggregated and sold to school cafeterias.

South Dakota School of Mines EPICS (Engineering/Science Projects in Community Service) students are partnering with SDSU Extension iGrow to develop an automated seed starter system for use at the hubs so that residents can obtain plant starts locally. 

In its final testing, the first system will allow 4,500 plant starts in a 6-foot tall 4x2 unit. Light and water can be regulated individually in each section of the unit depending on the needs of the seedlings.

EPICS iGrow team members are William Smith, Civil Engineering; Kate Weyeneth, Metallurgical Engineering; Samuel Irwin, Civil Engineering; Katherine Giorgio, Applied Biological Sciences; and Tessa Machado, Metallurgical Engineering. They met with Hammond and Jason Schoch, Tribal Local Foods Extension Associate & AgrAbility Project Director, to tour Rebel Earth and provide an update on their project.

The students’ goals are to provide lasting impacts for Reservation gardeners by providing a more cost-effective alternative to purchasing commercially grown plants, helping residents become more proficient gardeners, and creating a local supply of much needed plants for community gardens. Ultimately their work will aid in establishing a self-sufficient gardening system that can help support the people of Pine Ridge Reservation.

Schoch stated, “I think it’s great to see Rebel Earth Farms apply for the NRCS EQIP program and the Specialty Crop and SARE farmer/rancher grants that individual tribal members can apply for to become a small farmer. These programs and grants are out there to help them get started. Often times, however, it takes seeing someone actually do it, to encourage others to. Rebel Earth Farms is providing a pathway for others to learn and grow. What Rebel Earth Farms is doing, as an incubator, to provide landless and disabled tribal new farmers with access to land and growing space inside a high-tunnel, is amazing to see. These days not too many people are willing to do this sort of thing.”

502 Second Avenue, Martin, SD 57551 • 605-685-6866 • booster@gwtc.net