Choctaw Fresh Produce-a Tribal Success Story
In the Choctaw community of Conehatta, Miss., excitement abounds with the promise of fresh fruits and vegetables for this small community, and the schools and businesses linked with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
Dick Hoy, the new General Manager for Choctaw Fresh Produce, is on a person mission to bring better food choices to the Tribe. and to hopefully do something about the high rate of diabetes among Tribal communities. "This is a whole new adventure for me," Hoy says. "I'm so excited about a totally new challenge at this state of my life.
In early April 2013, Hoy was responsible for the building of three seasonal high tunnels in the Conehatta Community. USDA-NRCS Tribal Liaison, Timothy Oakes, who works hand in hand with Choctaw people, assisted with the conservation resource management plan for this project, and also the development of farm related plans and agreements between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Choctaw real-estate program.
"A farm management plan must be in place to receive a long term lease agreement for the use of agricultural lands held in trust by the Tribe," stated Oakes. "There are plans to include additional houses in field locations on Tribal land."
"Diabetes affects nearly 40 percent of the Choctaw population, mainly caused by poor food choices as a life style," state Hoy. "Getting the children started eating fresh produce is one of my main goals to help prevent and reduce the rate of this disease. Apparently it's working because already there has been a dramatic improvement since the Choctaws began a Farmers' Market and producing their own food. It will only get better with the use of seasonal high tunnels!"
Another plus is that there is no "middle man" to drive up prices as the produce goes straight from the farm to the restaurants, homes and businesses. the cost of the produce is kept at a minimum. Hoy hires day laborers at minimum wage that will be responsible for planting, maintaining, and harvesting. These projects will be creating job opportunities as well as health opportunities. Putting local Tribal people to work as well as providing a source for fresh produce for local businesses such as their restaurants and casinos is a much needed enterprise in this area.
Anther goal for Hoy is starting gardens to help educate the children about vegetable gardening, as well as cattle and agriculture as a whole, aiming towards the schools being self-sufficient. He wants them to learn where their food comes from: and intends to develop curriculum for the schools that will include basic botany, horticulture, cooking, marketing, and the process of growing food. What a set of goals!
The high tunnels were constructed by a Lucedale, Miss. contractor, Tubular Construction. An inexpensive water soluble fertilizer is used. Fertilizer is injected into a tube and valves lead it through filters and on to the plants. No high pressure irrigation si needed because a "proportioner" that regulates the flow is utilized.
The tunnels will be fully automated and many functions will be handled by phone such as motors and timers for raising and lowering the sides of other tunnel to allow more air flow for warmer months and protection from the cold during cooler months. A perimeter fence will be constructed to keep out deer and other destructive animals.
A greenhouse has also been established where transplants are being raised; and the tribe would like to expand the operation. An old Ford property will be used to wash and strip produce and then carry to Farmer's Market.
Cover crops planted inside the tunnels will be hairy vetch and clover, speckled peas, and legumes to increase nitrogen. They are staying away from chemicals to a bare minimum. "I'm learning a lot form my experiences of failure and success," Hoy said.
Vegetables planted in the tunnels include " Bok choy, a variety of peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, peas, cucumbers (coming in the fall), okra, and one entire tunnel house of tomatoes.
In Tucker, an older and smaller Choctaw Community, there are three more seasonal high tunnels managed by Facility Coordinator, Tim Comby. He will be putting 60 day laborers to work to assist in growing the produce for the local restaurants and casinos. Comby spends a lot of time giving briefing sessions to the workers (General Agriculture 101) and documenting every phase of the plantings. From the time you plant, fertilize, or do anything to the plants themselves, your have to document it as regulated by the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act recordkeeping requirements for traceability of possible food contaminants. the facilities are doing everything they can to get USDA certified and are building an office nearby to help with all the business aspects of the project.