Grant helps UConn and tribe grow crops in high tunnels

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Grant awarded to UConn gave the opportunity to help the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation harvest crops.  Photo by   Zoe Jensen/The Daily Campus

Grant awarded to UConn gave the opportunity to help the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation harvest crops. Photo by Zoe Jensen/The Daily Campus

The University of Connecticut was awarded a $280,000 4-year grant in 2017 through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation successfully harvested crops from high tunnels on a commercial scale this year in partnership with the University of Connecticut Extension.  

This year, the tribe grew tomatoes, sweet corn and other vegetables in high tunnels and greenhouses that prolong the growing season. Dr. Shuresh Ghimire, a Vegetable Crops Extension educator and the lead researcher of the grant program, said.  

“They are turning into a commercial business,” Ghimire said. “Hopefully this year, they will have revenue from their produce.”  

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is a tribe that has occupied Ledyard (also known as Mashantucket) in southeastern Connecticut for over 10,000 years, according to their website.   

The partnership was made possible through a $280,000 grant awarded in 2017 to the University of Connecticut by the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP), a competitive grant program of the United States Department Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). 

In the U.S., there are 593 federally recognized tribes. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is one of the two federally recognized tribes in the state of Connecticut, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.  

The grant is a four-year grant, and the money will be divided equally among the four years. 

The purpose of FRTEP is to help these communities build youth development, agriculture, natural resource management and business development by supporting outreach programs to reservations and tribes, the USDA-NIFA website said.  

The partnership between the tribe and the university began because both parties wanted to establish a relationship. There was an opportunity for the tribe to grow crops on a commercial scale to provide food for Foxwoods Resort and Casino, which is owned by the tribe, Ghimire said.  

“They buy food for their restaurants and hotels, but there was an opportunity to grow their own food and meet some of the demand,” Ghimire said. “Tribal people were not growing their food in a commercial way.” 

 UConn Extension is a public engagement program of the university’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources that helps local farmers, communities and businesses through food, health and sustainability educational programs.   

In the program, UConn Extension has five faculty educators, who work with tribal experts, members and two paid tribal youth interns. Together, they have vegetable production, vegetable and food specialist, business planning, youth development and nutrition programs to help the tribe to apply new techniques to commercial farming.   

According to a blog post in UConn Extension by tribal member Jeremy Whipple, this program has helped the tribe. 

“There has been a substantial gain in the knowledge and skills regarding growing food, writing business plan, nutrition, and health,” Whipple said.  

 Along with growing food this year, the extension program focused on teaching the tribe through a series of classes about organically approved fertilizer, soil nutrition and growing techniques, such as the high tunnels.   

“They are getting scientific knowledge along with their own traditional methods,” Ghimire said.  

 The grant is only available to universities that are “land-grant institutions,” a designation created by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 that allow universities to receive federal funding if they have agricultural, applied sciences and engineering programs so students can obtain a practical education, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.  

UConn has held this designation since 1893 and is Connecticut’s sole land-grant university.  

Although the tribe has been able to successfully grow crops in high tunnels, there have been setbacks. The tribe has had to deal with issues including weather, pests and weed management at the beginning of the growing season.   

For next year, the tribe and the program educators will have a better management system for these challenges, Ghimire said.  

In addition to the grant given by FRTEP, the program received an additional grant in 2018 for equipment from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a community-based organization promoting education and economic opportunity for American Indian nations and people.  

Ghimire hopes to be awarded more to help them sell commercially.  

 “Once we get the money, we will buy a trailer that is vegetable stand that is mobile,” Ghimire said. “They can utilize that to sell inside and outside of their community.” 

After the end of the grant program, Ghimire hopes that the tribe will continue to be a part of UConn Extension programs along with more successful commercial growing.   

“This grant is not going to go forever, but the expectation is that their current farm will be operating independently and will reach out to us for help,” Ghimire said.  

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation could not be reached for comment.  


Daniela Luna is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at daniela.luna@uconn.edu.

 

 

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