It was 7 below zero in Poplar, MT and Heather Snell was looking through seed catalogues for the upcoming growing season. “It’s time for a lot of planning,” she said with a chuckle. Snell is a gardener at the Tribal Community Services Department community garden on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and the 2021 recipient of the Jane Kile Memorial Scholarship. Funding through the scholarship is awarded for projects that seek to be part of the solution for a more sustainable Montana, supported by an endowment made in honor of early-AERO member Jane Kile. An enrolled member of the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Tribe (Lakota/Dakota) and self-described “passionate plant parent”, Snell has plans to use the scholarship funds to construct a 10×20 ft greenhouse as part of an expansion to the community garden where she works.
Currently, the garden produces a wide variety of produce, including potatoes, pumpkins, melons, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. Last year, Snell also grew and harvested brightly-colored Lakota squash, Hidatsa red beans and winter squash, Assiniboine corn, and collected honey from their resident hive of pollinator honey bees. Everything produced at the community garden—over 4,500lbs of fresh produce—was available for free to community members or donated to elder meal sites across the reservation. In addition to vegetables, the community garden also distributed over 380 3oz samples of honey, and fresh eggs from Snell’s own flock.
The new greenhouse will help expand the growing season and provide a space for Snell to experiment with some new crops. She is excited about offering more unique options with a focus on indigenous varieties of produce and medicinal plants, particularly as an opportunity to teach local schoolchildren and the community about traditional uses. “That’s what I am really drawn to: teaching people how to grow and showing people how to use the produce.” For example, Snell grew over 2,000 lbs of potatoes at the community garden last year, and included some unique selections. “It was a lot of peoples’ first time seeing purple potatoes,” she said. “That’s something we have been thinking a lot about—getting more variety of produce than could normally be found in the area.”
Lack of variety is a big issue in Poplar. “We are over an hour from the nearest Walmart,” said Snell. “The area we live in is definitely a food desert and many experience food scarcity.” The COVID-19 pandemic greatly exacerbated problems of food access on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which was limited to begin with. In 2020, as the country went into shutdown, food prices in Poplar skyrocketed—at one point, a carton of store-brand eggs cost as much as $8 per carton. “How can people afford that? When a lot of people are on assistance, you have to budget yourself and so the opportunities for fresh produce can be zero to none.” The Community Services Department community garden plot provides families with free and fresh options during the growing season, but year-round access remains an issue. Snell is full of ideas on how to expand the benefits of the community garden, and is even looking into options for preparing dehydrated meals made from local products that could be distributed at elder meal sites.
AERO is delighted to be able to support Snell and her efforts to build a more sustainable food system in her community. “I love to help people. It just makes my heart feel good and feels like something I should be doing,” she said. “My instincts tell me to feed and nourish others and to teach them how to do the same.” We look forward to seeing how the community garden will continue to grow.
AERO’s Jane Kile Memorial Scholarship is available annually to Montana residents who are active stewards of Montana lands, a farm or agricultural operation, and/or their local community food system. The application window for the 2022 scholarship will be announced in September.