Just a day earlier, the tomatoes were on the vines, the herbs were on the stalks and the onions were in the ground. Now the farm-fresh produce was for sale at a pop-up market in Minneapolis.
Grown by Dream of Wild Health, one of Minnesota's longest-serving Native-led nonprofits, the luscious-looking vegetables shared an intangible ingredient: "The rule is that you don't work in the field if you're having a bad day. You will spread negative emotions in the plants," said Ava Hartwell.
A 15-year-old Lakota who lives in Minneapolis, Hartwell has spent part of the past five summers as a camper at Dream of Wild Health's farm in Hugo. She and dozens of other Native youth work alongside a professional team of farmers who use traditional cultivation methods. They also go beyond sowing and reaping, with teachers who share Native customs and spiritual practices.
"In my beading, braiding my hair, my writing, I put positive energy and good intent in my creations," she said.
Since it began in 1998, Dream of Wild Health has been involved in collecting seeds saved by tribes across the country, considered a sacred act. The farm uses those seeds to grow hundreds of rows of heritage fruits and vegetables — various kinds of berries, beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, root vegetables and traditional medicine plants.
In the past year, the nonprofit has grown as fast as crops approaching harvest. At a time of renewed focus on food insecurity and health disparities in the American Indian population, it has dramatically expanded its food production and nutrition outreach for the community, especially Native urban youth.
"We can reverse negative health trends in our people by reclaiming traditional food," said Neely Snyder, Dream of Wild Health's executive director and an enrolled member of the St. Croix Chippewa. "With intergenerational sharing of knowledge, our young ones develop strong identities and deeper connections to our culture, food and medicine," she said. "That's the dream."
Last year, the organization purchased an additional 20 acres just down the road from its 10-acre farm. The tilled land and pollinator gardens are tended by a team of nine, augmented by the youth campers. The farm serves as an agriculture incubator that teaches responsibility, business practices and entrepreneurship. Its goal is to inspire and prepare the next generation, including some who will become Native farmers.
"In 2019, we hired our first youth alumni to be one of our farmers. This year, four of our alumni graduated from college," said Snyder.
In 2020, the farm's expanded footprint allowed it to distribute so much produce that it was measured in tons — 8.2 tons, to be exact. With this summer's optimal weather and the addition of irrigation and greenhouses to lengthen the growing season, 2021's production promises to be even more bountiful.
JUST LIKE GRANDMA'S
Dream of Wild Health sells its produce at two farmers markets in Minneapolis and through an Indigenous CSA foodshare.
The bag full of vegetables that Gerry Auginash recently bought reminded him of summertime eating from his grandmother's garden when he was growing up on the Red Lake Reservation.
"She had three big gardens plus one field for potatoes. She canned that stuff and we ate it all winter," said Auginash, 68, who now lives in Minneapolis. "That's why I'm so healthy today."
Vegetables from the Hugo farm are shared with some 20 Twin Cities Native partner organizations, including Indigenous food shelves and community kitchens that offer food demonstrations and make prepared meals for elders and what farm staff members call "our houseless relatives."
"Food is justice, food is medicine," said Kateri Tuttle, Dream of Wild Health program coordinator and an enrolled member of the Santee Dakota tribe. "We want to ensure that all of our community has access to food resources."
Tuttle said it's important that the organization and its partners do more than provide fresh food.
"Some of the traditions have been lost," she said. "When our kids know about our community and respect our ceremonies, they are statistically less likely to be depressed and experience addiction and even suicide. Our healthy indigenous food history is part of who we are."
HANDS IN THE DIRT
Connecting urban Native youth to the land is at the center of Dream of Wild Health's mission. It holds a series of summer camps for kids ages 8 to 18, mostly from Minneapolis and St Paul. Called garden warriors, they spend two weeks at the Hugo farm, earning a stipend for their labor.
In addition to turning off their cellphones and getting their hands in the dirt, they're taught by elders and Native artists, who share their ancestral knowledge about the natural world and traditional practices that have survived for generations.
"They are investing in us," said Hailiy Belanger, 15, of Minneapolis. "They help us know our language and the stories of our ancestors from my tribe and different tribes."
This summer was the third one the enrolled member of the St Croix Chippewa and South High student has spent working at the farm.
"I've learned about keeping our seeds, saying prayers, doing drums, beading," she said. "These things can be lost but because of me, they won't be."
Under the culinary direction of Indigenous chefs, the campers also prepare what they pick and gather in the farm's onsite kitchen.
"It's true farm-to-table," said nutrition program coordinator Alanna Norris, an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation who holds a degree in nutrition science.
"What the youth grow, taste and learn to like at a young age sticks with them," she said. "They can go home and teach their families and break the habit of quick, cheap, unhealthy meals."
Consuming food together includes practicing spiritual traditions.
"We teach them prayers before we eat and how to offer spirit dish, where you take a small amount of each food and place it near a tree with tobacco, to honor those who have passed," Norris said. "I learned this from my aunts and uncles Up North, but some don't have those ties."
That's the case for Hartwell.
"I grew up without my dad, who is Native. My mom tried her best to educate me but I didn't know much about my culture," she said. "At first going to the farm was just fun, but I learned from the teachings."
Hartwell said she can trace her personal education about being Native to the lessons learned at the farm. She's also forged deep relationships with other Native kids and elders, whom she now considers her grandparents.
"Dream of Wild Health helped me navigate my identity. I got my connections and took ownership of being Native," she said "It's been life-changing."