Indigenous Roots of Climate Farming

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by Charles Goodin and Mikael Maynard
Syntropic plantings help fix nitrogen, suppress weeds, and create biomass and nutrients.

“I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up,” Elizabeth Hoover, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says. “But my guidance counselor…–…this was the ’90s…–…said it wasn’t a good idea. So I went to college for a very long time to become a professor who hangs out with farmers and writes about farmers instead.”

Hoover is of Mohawk ancestry and is an expert in Native American environmental health and food sovereignty. She notes that Native Americans often have a complex relationship with agriculture. “Many Indigenous communities farmed for generations, and then got interrupted by authorities who push methods that are not only abusive to the environment, but also to the people involved,” she says. “[Conventional farming] is not only bad for the climate, but also bad for people, for the communities living nearby, and the people downstream, because it’s disrupting waterways, creating dead zones … the list goes on.”

At Johnny Appleseed Organic, we’re passionate about transforming conventional farms into carbon-guzzling oases. And although Climate Farming principles have never been more crucial, they aren’t new. In fact, many of the practices we use on our farm today have roots in Indigenous agriculture that predates European settlers in North America.

Foundations of North American Farming Knowledge

“Native people seldom get credit for anything, and often, we’re perceived as primitive or backwards,” says Jane Mt. Pleasant, associate professor emeritus at Cornell University School of Integrative Plant Science.

Mt. Pleasant’s words are disconcerting at best, considering how many of our current-day sustainable and organic agricultural practices originate from Native American methods. Mt. Pleasant, who’s of Tuscarora ancestry and an expert on Indigenous agriculture, spoke with us about the origins of several of the principles we use to Climate Farm at our Organic Village near Folkston, Georgia.

“It’s important to recognize that Indigenous peoples have crucial foundations of knowledge that can help us deal with the incredible problems that we’re facing now,” Mt. Pleasant says. “There are traditions and ways of dealing with landscapes and managing soils and crops and plants that can be helpful in terms of ameliorating the problems and challenges that we face today.”

Let’s take a look at a few tenets of Climate Farming that have evolved from Indigenous practices in North America.

Minimal Topsoil Disturbance (No-Till or Minimal-Till Farming)

As it turns out, one of the main principles of modern-day Climate Farming is also a foundational reason for the success of pre-Columbian Indigenous agriculture. Did you know that all Indigenous peoples who farmed in North America originally practiced no-till farming?

plants start to grow in the plow row

They wouldn’t have called it that, though, Mt. Pleasant explains. It was simply how Native Americans grew food, at least in part because there were no domesticated draft animals in the Western Hemisphere prior to European colonization. No draft animals, and no plows. But tilling wouldn’t have been advantageous to pre-Columbian Indigenous agriculture in North America anyway. Whereas plowing was useful for small seeded crops, such as the wheat and rye that Europeans grew (with plows) around the same time, staple Native American crops wouldn’t have benefited from tilling. Corn, for example, has a tremendous capacity to germinate and make its way to the surface, even in rough conditions, because of its large seed size, according to Mt. Pleasant.

Instead of tilling, many Native Americans planted and maintained crops with hand tools. Which, far from being a disadvantage, is a primary reason Indigenous agriculture in North America was sustainable and produced large yields…–…results that suffered after colonizers forced European farming methods on Native American peoples.

We consider minimal-till practices a main principle of Climate Farming at Johnny Appleseed Organic. By avoiding tilling unless strictly necessary, we’re able to maintain soil fertility for a much longer period of time compared with fully plow-based systems that strip soil of vital nutrients.

Stratified, Adjacent Planting of Multiple Species

Polyculture…–…planting supportive species of plants together in one area to mitigate pests and improve soil quality…–…was a well-established method in pre-Columbian Indigenous agriculture, and it’s one of the indispensable tenets of Climate Farming.

hoop housing on farm at dusk

Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) agriculture was one of the first Indigenous cropping systems reported by Europeans. The ancient Haudenosaunee tradition of polyculture includes the Three Sisters…–…a technique that involves growing maize (corn), beans, and squash together…–…according to Mt. Pleasant, who’s researched Iroquois farming extensively. Sixteenth century records from when Europeans began colonizing North America describe an abundant crop practice based on maize, beans, and squash, which evidence suggests could’ve been planted together by the Haudenosaunee as early as A.D. 1250.

It’s often assumed that the strength of the Three Sisters system lies in the fact that it’s a polyculture of three specific plants, with beans providing essential nitrogen, but Mt. Pleasant points out that without the foundational no-till system, this method wouldn’t yield nearly as much.

While the presence of nitrogen-producing beans doesn’t hurt, the reality, she says, is that American soils were incredibly fertile to begin with, and Indigenous peoples farmed in a way that maintained that soil fertility by nature. The Three Sisters planting system also provided a complete array of the nutrient subsistence needed by farmers.

On our Climate Farm, we practice this technique by planting guilds (also called “consortiums”), which are plant communities that work well together to help fix nitrogen, suppress weeds, and create biomass and nutrients.

Erosion and Water Management

In the Northeast, where rain was plentiful, Indigenous peoples managed water for agriculture primarily by maintaining vegetation cover on soil…–…a beneficial result of no-till farming. Fields covered with plants naturally regulate water, explains Mt. Pleasant.

In the arid Southwest, in contrast, Indigenous peoples used techniques that maximized limited and intermittent rainfall. Zuni agriculture, for example, has developed through centuries in the semiarid mesa country of what’s now western New Mexico. The Zuni are among several Southwestern Native American tribes known for runoff agriculture, a farming method adapted by people perpetually threatened by drought.

The traditional practice of runoff agriculture yielded abundant harvests despite low rainfall…–…a crucial concept for us to understand today as we develop climate-resilient farms. Runoff agriculture is implemented in various ways, but the main idea is to increase the amount of water available for crops by harvesting water and sediment from local watersheds. In doing so, fields are strategically positioned to collect and manage incoming runoff from higher ground. Not only does runoff agriculture boost water supply, but it also builds and replenishes soil fertility. This is because runoff water transports nutrient-rich organic matter and sediments from watersheds to fields, which in turn boosts the sustainability of agricultural productivity. Instead of planting and irrigating the same crops year after year, the Zuni rotated their fields, locating them near the bases of mesas to capture water runoff from seasonal storms.

At Johnny Appleseed Organic, we utilize water-management techniques inspired by these Indigenous practices. We thoughtfully select the best growing locations based on water runoff and the slope of the land. We also shape the land by creating berms and irrigation canals to capture, sink, and store water that naturally flows through the property.

Looking to the Past for a Better Future

Acknowledging Indigenous agricultural methods as the foundation for much of Climate Farming is vital to our work at Johnny Appleseed Organic. Given the escalating climate realities we face today, we look to those who came before us, and honor and learn from their wisdom, which has the potential to steer us all in the direction of a more resilient and respectful relationship with the land.

Jeff Meyer is the founder of Johnny Appleseed Organic, an eco-village and online store that provides farmers and gardeners with resources to fight climate change. Learn more at Johnny Appleseed. (Climate Farming is a registered trademark of Johnny Appleseed Orchards LLC.)