economic viability

UConn Extension is Growing Food and Health with the Mashantucket Tribe

“The mission statement of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (MPTN) states they will ‘…establish a social, cultural and economic foundation that can never be undermined or destroyed…,’” says Tribal Councilor Daniel Menihan, Jr. MPTN was facing challenges growing their fruits and vegetables at a scale to meet the tribe’s needs on their land in Ledyard, and some members were struggling with diabetes.

UConn has enjoyed a long history of engagement with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal community. Many members have graduated from UConn and served on the UConn Foundation Board, among others. Despite the fact that there is an Extension office only 10 miles from the reservation, MPTN has rarely participated in any educational outreach or training offered by UConn Extension.

UConn Extension received the four-year Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) grant from USDA-NIFA with the goal of having the tribe share their ideas for growing food and health, and help them learn about the Extension resources that are available. As a result of the grant, the relationship between MPTN and UConn is strengthening, and there is growth in agricultural production, food security, and health for the tribal people.

heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes grown by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Photo: Noah Cudd

“MPTN is still learning, but they are now able to grow their own food, in what looks like a commercial setting,” states Shuresh Ghimire, PhD, Vegetable Crops Extension educator and principal investigator on the grant. “They have high tunnels, a rototiller, a plastic mulch layer, and cold storage, which are common tools for a commercial farm.”

Extension provides expertise through one-on-one consultation, and classroom and hands-on training on-site in a collaborative setting. Educational outreach addresses the following critical areas identified by the MPTN Council:

  1. Improve food security
  2. Improve economic viability
  3. Improve youth engagement and communications
  4. Improve nutrition and diabetes awareness through collaborative education

An Extension program involving several specialists in fruit and vegetable production, farm business management, marketing, 4-H youth development, health and nutrition, communications, evaluation and assessment is working with the MPTN on their goals. Tribal members are participating in other Extension programs, beyond the scope of the grant. A 4-H club is being established at MPTN to increase opportunities for youth.

“Once this grant came, we started working with UConn Extension Educators. There has been a substantial gain in the knowledge and skills regarding growing food, writing a business plan, nutrition, and health,” says Jeremy Whipple, a MPTN member.

Growing with MPTN

Extension provides education for MPTN in state-of-the-art sustainable vegetable and fruit production techniques, and through

people in the greenhouse at the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation
UConn Extension educators work with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in a high tunnel. Photo: Shuresh Ghimire

collaboration with MPTN, is melded with traditional and historical tribal farming methods. This provides MPTN with a means to continue the richness of their history while moving into modern sustainable farming economically.

Tribal youth are included in all aspects of the agricultural venture with the tribe’s expectation that several youth will develop major roles in the business venture. Two tribal youth are being paid by the grant to work in vegetable production at MPTN.

“Learning how to grow tomatoes, including pest management, is one of the many things I enjoy working with on this grant” Ernest Pompey, one of the tribal youths working on this grant says. “I am excited to share what I learned about growing and eating healthy food to other youth in my community.”

“The tribe also established a community garden where they bring other youth from the community to teach them about growing. The knowledge is expanding within their own community, and they are teaching each other now,” Shuresh says.

making the three sisters recipe with members of the Mashantucket tribe
Extension educators make the Three Sisters recipe with members of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

UConn Extension’s nutrition team is working with the tribal community health providers to deliver educational programming in healthy eating and diabetes prevention using classroom education, and hands-on learning in the selection and preparing of healthy food, and exercise through gardening. The goal is to reduce the risk and incidence of diabetes in the tribal community.

“The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) utilizes a hands-on approach to nutrition education, combining nutrition knowledge with enhancement of skills to apply this knowledge to prepare healthy foods that are convenient, affordable and culturally appropriate,” says Mike Puglisi PhD, RD, state EFNEP director. “Erica Benvenuti, New London County nutrition educator, taught children in the MPTN High 5 Program the importance of food safety and increasing vegetable intake, and enhanced learning through getting the children involved in preparation of a traditional recipe prepared by the MPTN, the Three Sisters Rice recipe.”

The grant is starting its third year, and another Extension educator is working with tribal youth and adults in developing a business plan for the agricultural venture to increase their success rate. Youth and adults are also learning about their agricultural history and how it can successfully be integrated into today’s modern sustainable agriculture by combining classes with in-field learning experience.

“Ultimately, after the grant ends, MPTN’s farm will operate as a commercial vegetable farm would in terms of production and reaching out to Extension when they do need help. They will be independent, and continue growing their operation to support the goals of the tribal nation,” Shuresh states.

Article by Stacey Stearns and Shuresh Ghimire

IPM at Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford

Through its offices located throughout Connecticut, UConn Extension connects the power of UConn research to local issues by creating practical, science-based answers to complex problems. Extension provides scientific knowledge and expertise to the public in areas such as: economic viability, business and industry, community development, agriculture and natural resources. This post, written by Mary Concklin explores how UConn Extension programs impact an agricultural business.

tomatoesIntegrated pest management (IPM) takes many forms at Bishop’s Orchards in Guilford. Dr. Jude Boucher, UConn Vegetable Production & IPM extension specialist, has been working with Bishop’s in season long vegetable IPM training aimed at increasing the production of high quality produce while avoiding unnecessary pesticide applications. Boucher has worked with Bishop’s field manager, Michaele Williams, scouting tomatoes on a weekly basis and teaching how to install preventative practices that help lower the incidence of disease and raise the yield and quality of their tomatoes. Preventative practices include plastic and living mulches for weed control, which also serve as a mechanical barrier for spores that might otherwise splash up from the soil. Timely irrigations through trickle lines under the plastic, trellis systems, plant pruning, and proper site selection help keep the plants healthy and growing, lift the plants off the ground, thin the leaf canopy and allow the leaves to dry quicker so that they are less prone to diseases problems. Fungicides can be used only when needed and applied when computer models call for an application or when a disease is actually found during weekly scouting. Insects on tomatoes, Brussel sprouts, onions and other crops are controlled with microbial insecticides that are not toxic to humans and spare natural enemies to help prevent future pest outbreaks. Working with Extension also helps Michaele learn to recognize pests and natural enemies and design management systems on a host of new crops that the farm is now growing, from squash blossoms to beets.

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NEWA weather station. Photo: Mary Concklin

Mary Concklin, UConn Fruit Production & IPM extension specialist, works with Bishop’s Orchards with fruit crop IPM. Bishop’s Orchard has been the site of in-field workshops conducted by Concklin for the fruit industry including blueberry pruning and apple tree grafting. Blueberry pruning is important for maintaining plant health, improving berry production, and reducing pest problems, while grafting is an important tool used to top work fruit trees to varieties that are more productive, more marketable or resistant to particular diseases. Through a USDA Specialty Crop grant, Concklin installed a solar powered weather station whose data feeds directly into the Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA) at Cornell University. The data, run through pest models and accessible at www.newa.cornell.edu, is used by growers to help with pest management, irrigation and fruit thinning decisions. Concklin, in cooperation with Bishop’s Orchards and the USDA, has also been using pheromone traps to monitor for the presence of the new invasive insect pest, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug. In addition she has monitored the bramble crops for the presence of the Spotted Wing Drosophila, another new invasive insect pest. Information garnered from these activities has been useful to the Bishop’s in determining management strategies.