Field to Fork: Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley

The Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley is located on the Big Pine Indian Reservation in California, at the foot of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The tribe’s early ancestors utilized the land and water to create irrigated areas that produced the tribe’s main food source. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Los Angeles purchased most of the land and water rights in the Owens Valley and transferred them to the Los Angeles basin, thus severing the tribe’s connection with the land and water and interfering with its ability to feed its own people.

Today, the Big Pine Reservation is considered a “food desert” because of the lack of access to healthy and affordable food. In 2010, the tribe established the Sustainable Food System Development Project to transform its food desert into a more robust, sustainable food system by establishing a permaculture garden.

In 2013, First Nations awarded the Big Pine Paiute Tribe $37,500 through the Native Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Initiative (NAFSI) to expand the permaculture garden to include a demonstration site, a fruit orchard, a seed bank, and a weekly farmers’ market. This grant, underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has allowed the tribe to develop an innovative field-to-fork model that will sustain the community for generations to come.

This grant allowed the tribe to expand their small permaculture garden into a larger educational community garden that teaches tribal members how to plant, grow and harvest healthy, organic heirloom fruits and vegetables as well as Native plants and medicine. The tribe used the expanded permaculture garden as a demonstration site to conduct several classes and workshops, including a three-day intensive permaculture course, food policy/sovereignty classes, youth mentoring sessions, and numerous gardening workshops.

The gardening workshops, in particular, have been very popular among tribal members. At these workshops, tribal members learn about composting, caring for plants and respecting ecosystems. Many workshop participants used these lessons to create their own personal home gardens. These workshops encouraged tribal members to start their own gardens while simultaneously attending to the community garden. As a result of these hands-on workshops, tribal members helped plant, grow and harvest more than 100 pounds of squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans and bell peppers that were eventually donated to the tribal grocery store.

Many tribal members also volunteered at the expanded permaculture garden site outside of these workshops. For example, several volunteers helped plant 50 perennial fruit trees. The trees did not yield any fruit this season. However, once these trees mature, they have the potential to yield hundreds of pounds of fruit. These trees will produce healthy, fresh fruit for generations. The tribe speculates that eventually they will need to hire more workers to maintain the fruit orchard and the ever-expanding permaculture garden.

The tribe determined which fruits and vegetables to plant in the permaculture garden by conducting a community survey. This survey also helped the tribe determine which seeds to collect and store for the seed bank. The purpose of the seed bank is to gather the seeds of plants originally grown in the region and preserve them for future generations. The seed bank is a continuing process that will grow as the tribe becomes more and more aware of its needs and learns proper seed-saving techniques.

A portion of this grant was also used to host weekly farmers’ markets that helped farmers and workshop participants sell their fruits and vegetables. These farmers markets are intended to help growers earn extra money and provide tribal members with a healthy alternative to processed foods.

The Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley developed the Sustainable Food System Development Project to improve the physical health and well-being of their people and to preserve their tribal community for generations to come. The success of this innovative field-to-fork model reiterates that tribes have the potential to strengthen and improve their own communities.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator