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Red Lake leaders hope organic farm can feed tribe members

David Manuel runs the Red Lake test garden. He says the heritage tomatoes grow much larger thanks to fish gut fertilizer, from the Red Lake fishery.

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Leaders of the Red Lake Indian Reservation hope to feed the roughly 5,000 tribal members who live there with fresh, organic produce grown on the northern Minnesota reservation.

The tribe has expanded their garden to a 4-acre patch of farmland on the southwestern border of the reservation. The garden has many vegetables including pepper, kale and tomatoes.

The garden is using fish guts from the tribe's walleye processing facility to fertilize the land and help the crops grow.

"I heard a lot of stories about traditional uses of fish heads and the waste products of fish," said Sam Strong, the tribe's economic development director. "They would bury it, just right next to the plant. If you think about it, fish guts are comprised of nitrogen. It's the perfect fertilizer."

Anglers catch 1 million pounds of walleye from the lake every year. About half of what leaves the tribe's processing facility is bones, heads and guts.


David Manuel, who runs the test garden, said tribal leaders hope to distribute local organic foods throughout the reservation to help people eat smarter and healthier.

"We have rampant diabetes," Manuel said. "We have rampant childhood diabetes. We're in a health crisis."

Strong said he hopes to grow enough crops to feed all members within five years.

"We're getting to a point where we realize that food is medicine," Strong said. "We're realizing we need to make that investment in our own people, to combat diabetes and cancer."

In addition to the test farm, the tribe has 800 acres of domestic wild rice. Most of the wild rice crop was sold off of the reservation until recently, Strong said.

The tribe is also working on adding an industrial indoor growing facility and creating an area for a bison herd that will arrive later this fall.

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