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RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: An overview of the Gitigaanike Foods Initiative

Red Lake is rich in land and natural resources. It has a short but potent growing season and the people are making strides to feed and sustain themselves, making the community stronger, healthier and more vibrant. It is truly an honor to be a part of such a change-making and restorative organization.

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Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast.

On Black Friday, I had the privilege of hanging out at Harmony Foods Co-op, where they were flipping the idea of Black Friday on its head with their Buy Local, Give Local sale. I was there because 10% of all proceeds from their sale were going to support two great local nonprofits: the White Earth Land Recovery Project and the Gitigaanike Foods Initiative, where I work.

As I happily explained to customers what it is that we do, I realized that the work of the Gitigaanike Foods Initiative might not be very well known down here in Bemidji and I want to put it on everyone’s radar. The work we do is pretty amazing.

First, the word Gitigaanike (Gih-tih-gahn-ih-kay) is in Ojibwe and is part of a wider effort to restore the Ojibwe language in Red Lake and beyond. Gitigaanike means "to make a garden." The Gitigaanike Foods Initiative was started in 2016 by a small crew of committed Red Lake Band members, including Mike Van Horn, Cherilyn Spears and David Manuel to name a few. With love and effort, they turned a junkyard behind Oshkiimahjitahdah (New Beginnings) in Redby into a fully operational, organic two-acre market garden.

The garden has grown substantially over the years to include both a high tunnel and greenhouse for season extension. Creating jobs, the garden has also employed a variety of workers and hosted a number of trainings, including an annual food summit where people from all over the country have come to share Indigenous agricultural knowledge.

One of the best parts about the training garden is that all of its organic, natural produce grown by Red Lakers is then sold to Red Lakers. In our mobile farmers market (a refurbished ice fishing house decked out in vegetable stickers), our team brings the market to the community.

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Every week throughout the growing season, we drive to all four districts in Red Lake -- Red Lake, Redby, Little Rock and Ponemah -- to have a farmers market. Prices are kept reasonable and we love meeting smiling customers and hearing what they’re going to cook with our vegetables. In fact, we are hoping to grow our farmers market and other vendors are encouraged to join us as we travel.

It is in the training garden that supplies the farmers market where Gitigaanike started one of its most exciting programs in 2020 through an Administration for Native Americans grant: the Farmer Training Program.

Each year, we take on 10 applicants as farmers-in-training. In this earn-as-you-learn program, new farmers are actually able to earn a living as they undergo our farm training curriculum, as the cost of living can be a huge barrier for people to enter full-time training programs like ours.

Trainees who are in their first year work hands-on in our garden for five hours in the morning and then hop into the virtual classroom where they learn the science of agriculture and the strategies for budgeting, marketing and making their own business plan for their future farms.

In the second and optional third years of the training program, farmer trainees are given either a half or a full acre at our farm incubator, a developing farm site right across from the Red Lake Seven Clans Casino. There, second-year participants can grow the produce they choose and practice more autonomy and creativity in their parcels while still sharing tools, resources and knowledge with the program.

The farm incubator is a beautiful swath of land that we are lucky to tend and steward. A full 21 acres, the new farm will be the home of the training garden in 2022, and we are excited for our buildings to go up in the spring. The hope is to someday build our own Gitigaanike Foods Co-op and create a sustainable market for the graduates of our farmer training program.

All of what we do at Gitigaanike is informed by tradition and community. That is why we have also taken on Project Grow from the tribe. Every year, on top of growing our own food, we help community members start their own home gardens by coming by with our tilling equipment and free seed kits.

In the last few years, we have tilled and delivered seeds to over 400 homes. One of the most common things I hear is, “Oh, I don’t garden, but my grandma used to.” We are flipping that narrative and putting seeds back in the people’s hands. We are reintroducing people to the Earth who have been disconnected from their land. Gardening is healing on so many levels.

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All of these efforts under the umbrella of the Gitigaanike Foods Initiative work toward the overarching goal of food sovereignty in Red Lake. COVID-19 illustrated (and continues to illustrate) the fragility of our food system and economy. Everything is on backorder. And the drought from this past summer also showed us that climate change is going to alter the agricultural landscape and the prices of food.

Red Lake is rich in land and natural resources. It has a short but potent growing season and the people are making strides to feed and sustain themselves, making the community stronger, healthier and more vibrant. It is truly an honor to be a part of such a change-making and restorative organization.

To find out more, feel free to join our Facebook Gitigaanike Group or contact our parent organization, 4-Directions Development, at (218) 679-IDEA or on Facebook .

Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast. She can be reached at beglinr@gmail.com .

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