Since it’s below freezing, Rita and Barton Williams walk us into the greenhouse that sits to the side of their farmstead a dozen miles outside Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Which is to say, in the middle of the middle of America, what Oklahomans call Green Country. Long, straight roads and a rolling sea of yellow farmland and island hills of leafless deciduous trees extend under a mercury sky.
The 160 acres around Rita’s modest two-story, gray farmhouse was her great-great grandfather’s reparation allotment from the Dawes Enactment of 1887. It has stayed in Rita’s family ever since. Rita has an earthen complexion, like soil that has almost dried in the sun. Her white hair falls to her shoulders. Barton has a slightly darker tone and looks and sounds every bit the farmer – grubby jeans, a tough-skinned, worn-in coat, a baseball hat, a cheek full of chewing tobacco, and an Oklahoma drawl as slow and long as the roads leading out here.
Barton’s mom died of diabetes and Barton learned he had it around the year 2000. He and Rita had always grown much of their food but they cooked it the wrong way. So they started eating better – less oil, agave instead of sugar – and Barton lost 40 pounds. He still has diabetes but its symptoms are mild and manageable.
Until recently, the Williams and one other family were the only Wilson community members to grow food, despite this being “Green Country” and there being thousands of acres of land in and around the tiny postage-stamp town. Community members might only know about the Williams’ garden if they happened to drive by that old country road beside their house.
“When we got the CFP (USDA’s Community Food Project) grant,” says Rita, “We started having the trainings in hoop house construction, seed saving, soil treatment, etc. Through word-of-mouth in the community, people heard about it and they’d come out to a training.”
“Now we have about eight to ten families with backyard gardens,” says Barton, who built the greenhouse as part of the CFP, as well, to experiment in season extension and growing starters. It was a learning process. “I ended up putting some of my money into this since the grant didn’t cover all the unexpected parts to the building. But now I know how to build one for much cheaper, using more affordable materials and still getting a good hoop house.”
“We can help people design this on a dime now,” says Rita. “And we’ve got the farmer’s market in Okmulgee on Tuesday and Saturdays so people are seeing fresh food from our farms. We want to bring the market out to the tribal property next.”
Lou Fixico joins us in the greenhouse. Lou is a member of the Mvskoke Creek Nation, as well and she’s serves on the Food and Fitness Policy Council. Lou smiles when she talks in her soft voice. She works with the eleven nutrition centers that serve tribal elders in eight different counties. They provide 20,000 meals per month to both homebound and congregate elderly people.
It’s an important service but Lou knows they can do better. She and the Williams have been working to utilize as much of the farm-fresh food as possible in the elderly care meals. Lou wants to look locally, traditionally at the opportunities for backyard protein, as well.
“We’re at the point where we have to start taking care of ourselves” she says. “It would be great if we could start eating off the trees and hunting deer, rabbit, squirrel, like we used to.”
“But we have federal grants and tribal grants and so we have to stay within the grant guidelines. The meat has to be regulated. The produce can’t just come from somebody’s farm down the road. It has to be certified to be sure it’s safe.”
What a dilemma. For now, the elderly meal program is wedged into using the cheap, “Certified” industrial food complex to feed its members. Programs like the Food Sovereignty Initiative, encourage the people to return to traditional diets, but with so many residents on WIC or subsidized food programs, they are reliant upon the rules and restrictions of US government’s food safety policies, which heavily favor large-scale agricultural production and consumption.
Occasionally, dilemmas yield the best radical thoughts.
There was an effort in Honduras in the last few years to completely start over – in terms of everything: government, civic institutions, laws. The country was plagued with so many deep cracks and inefficiencies and distrust that some of the political leadership, teamed up with a world-renown economist from the US, attempted a sort of experiment in a remote corner of the country. They would build a city from scratch, from the cement foundations to the schools to the language of the laws. They’d get it right this time. Then maybe the country could follow suit. That was the idea.
It failed. For a variety of reasons, as can be imagined: Dubious investors, the post-modern colonial challenges posed by an outsider (the economist) coming in as the “expert,” and the fact that the whole project undermined core tenants to the Honduran constitution.
The Mvksoke Creek Nation is by no means Honduras. But they are their own sovereign nation. They can bring ideas to their own table and write their own laws. For example, Rita heard about a Cherokee Nation farm that grows grass-feed beef. She wants to start the conversation about meat production. Why can’t the Tribal Nation write their own rules about meat processing? There are so many hoops to jump through with federal laws, but the Creek Nation can come together and decide if they want to make small-scale slaughter houses and butcher shops a part of their economy so they can process their traditional game meats in a responsible way.
The traditional food is coming back in some parts of the Mvskoke Nation. Last fall an MFSI group harvested dozens of pounds of the native possum grape for jelly and wine making. One member of the group kept the seeds and plans a propagation experiment this spring. A few people are growing “Indian Pumpkins” in backyards and they are teaching women to use agave instead of sugar when frying the pumpkin chunks.
Rita and Barton have expanded their farm from one to seven acres. Barton recently helped the school put their hoop house together. Rita’s talking to other women about their traditional dumpling recipes.
“I would always burn the husks of the purple hull peas and add the ashes to the masa flour to make the dumplings blue and give them a good taste,” saya Rita. “But I talked to some other women who use tumbleweed and juniper for a more smoky flavor. Who knew? Tumbleweed!”
“It’s all about using the resources around us and networking,” she continues. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”