By Jason Walker • SFA Communications Director
It didn’t take long for Zachary Paige to become a positive force in Minnesota’s Native American community, helping to devise a project that culminated late last year in a significant grant to create an indigenous seed keeping network.
As a recent graduate of SFA’s Deep Roots Farmer Development Program, Paige, 30, is also proof that Deep Roots is training the next generation of farmers and community leaders. Paige, of Ponsford, Minn, took the program then known as Sustainable Food Production in 2012-13, and said he gained a holistic vision of sustainable food systems by looking at the issue from many different angles.
“I had no experience farming until after graduating college,” he said. “I taught music and worked on farms for two summers in the off-season teaching music. I had all sorts of questions brewing in my mind regarding plant cultivation, breeding and why many ‘sustainable’ farms didn’t save their seeds. I really thought that this was something important that would close the gap in the cyclical nature of sustainable food systems.”
While in the program, Paige gained real-world experience, extensive skills training, and the educational background needed to become a sustainable food producer. Further, Deep Roots’ commitment to community development and mentoring boosted Paige’s desire to develop a progressive project that would positively impact the indigenous community.
“There is an ancestral knowledge and history of growing food and saving seeds in White Earth and other native communities,” Paige said. “By pooling resources and working together with other tribes in our region, this information becomes more accessible.”
Now, Paige is focused on seed keeping educational events led by native seed keepers in over 12 tribes, tribal colleges and communities in the Upper Midwest. Thanks to the grant Paige and his colleagues received, the groups are sharing resources on seed-keeping techniques, creating a protection for seeds with indigenous origins through ancestral agricultural knowledge, and treating them with respect as living, breathing relatives. The issue does not just affect Native Americans or reservations, however, because seed patent laws have a widespread influence on all farmers and, eventually, all who consume the resulting food.
“If we don’t have control of our seeds, do we really have control of our food system?” Paige said. “Saving seeds empowers us to take charge of closing another loop in our food system. We need to create a stronger ‘public commons’ to protect small-scale and organic farmers from lawsuits and to safeguard the integrity of our seeds.”
He credits his experience with Deep Roots for reinforcing his desire to be a community leader as well as inspire the farmers and leaders yet to come. The Deep Roots instructors are all farmer-educators: Sue Wika, Tom Prieve, Kent Solberg and Ryan Pesch.
“I cannot say enough about the instructors – Sue, Tom, Ryan and Kent are true living inspirations,” Paige said. “They practice what they preach, know the basics, are pushing the envelope and are always questioning.
“I was able to become an effective farm manager at the White Earth Land Recovery Project farm because of SFA’s hands-on training. Experiential training is the best you can get, and I would recommend this program to any beginning farmer looking to get started.”
Paige said anyone in the Deep Roots program would immediately see its benefits as the class progresses, because of the instructors’ dedication to ongoing education, camaraderie and mentorship.
“You will quickly realize that you have entered an extremely supportive group that has dedicated their lives to heal the earth by producing truly sustainable alternatives to our agribusiness system,” he said.