Six years ago, there was a 300-acre woodland in North Stonington. A dirt road led to the property, and Jeremy Whipple, executive director of the Agriculture Department of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (MPTN), dreamed of building the tribe’s farm on the land and reconnecting with its agricultural roots.
This plot of land has been transformed into the Michowook Ranch, a vibrant agricultural operation for the tribe. Today, there are two plots of land totaling 600 acres. Now the land is used for production, greenhouses grow lettuce and tomatoes throughout the year, grow fruit, livestock, and plan to expand the farm and agricultural products that they can grow.
Transforming the land is made possible through the support of UConn . Extension Teachers and the Federally Recognized Tribe Extension Program (FRTEP).
The program is funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The USDA recently funded the project for an additional four years thanks to the success of Meechooôk Farm and other programs that strengthen the tribal community, their land base, and their self-sufficiency.
“It brought back a lot of lost traditions,” Whipple says. “This project means everything to me because we grow food for our people and we train the family to grow their own food.”
While the farming activities of the tribe have immediate effects on the community, the goal is also to support future members.
“It’s important because it’s part of our culture,” Whipple says. “Teaching the principles of the seven generations, that’s what we do for it. Seven generations is a mindset in the tribe where every decision is considered based on how it affects the next seven generations.
Embracing their agricultural roots and adaptive practices for the future allows Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and UConn Extension, the outreach arm of UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resourcesto address critical issues related to the sustainability of food and agriculture, health and well-being, and resilience to climate change.
“our Partnership with Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation “It goes to the heart of who we are,” says Indrajit Chobe, dean of the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. “We are committed to this partnership as part of our land grant mission and our dedication to diversity, equality, inclusion and justice.”
The Mashantucket Pequot tribe dates back 10,000 years to southeastern Connecticut, and they spent many of those years fighting to keep their land. The tribe returned to its lands in the 1970s, with the goal of restoring its community and land base and achieving self-sufficiency.
“As a tribal people, we have an obligation to the next seven generations, and what better gift to leave than clean water and food,” says Daniel Minihan Jr., a tribal council member. “It goes right back to our roots from a cultural and historical point of view. But when it comes to farming, the tribe is really just repositioning ourselves as we have always been.”
Whipple says health education has promoted a return to agricultural roots.
“We have a Food Rx program that diabetics in the tribe can buy on the farm as a prescription, like going to the pharmacy.”
As part of the FRTEP program, UConn Extension nutrition educators have offered virtual cooking and nutrition classes. Young members also have the opportunity to take part in fitness classes and actively participate in agricultural production on the farm.
Meechooôk Farm gradually developed through the dedication of the tribesmen, as well as the vision that Whipple shared with everyone. Progressive improvements have included selling their produce to restaurants at Foxwoods Casino and through a farm platform.
“The long-term goal is to increase the institutional capacity of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to meet their food production needs,” explains Shuresh Ghimire, Associate Extension Instructor and Principal Investigator on the project. “Tribal food security, food sovereignty, youth engagement, and the health of tribal people are among the highest priorities of a tribal nation and these goals align very well with those of the FRTEP programme.”
Further land clearing and agricultural project expansion are underway. The tribe is building more greenhouses, a meat processing facility, as well as a winery, and a commercial kitchen to expand sales beyond fruit and vegetables. They plan to partner with other local farmers and share their resources, with the goal of helping other Connecticut agricultural producers to increase food security in the state.
UConn Extension helps the tribe form the 4-H Club to continue serving its youth members through traditional agricultural training, STEM-focused programming, and leadership opportunities.
“UConn Extension have been great partners and great friends,” Minihan says. “The relationship is the cornerstone of what we have here today; it’s a two-way relationship. We’ve had very young tribal members who are very inspired by what’s going on here and that’s probably the most rewarding – the team’s ability to gain interest and inspire the next generation who will continue this.”
Financial support for this work was provided by the NIFA’s Federally Recognized Tribe Extension Program (FRTEP Awards 2017-41580-26950 and 2022-41580-37944).
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