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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

TURTLE ISLAND at the Moonspeaker

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Turtle Island Agriculture

There are few images that seem quite so emblematic of the Albertan prairies as the fields that span many rural areas from the international border as far north as Cold Lake in a sort of variegated checkerboard. They are formidable creations, sown, sprayed, and harvested by large machines that can throw tall clouds of dust visible for miles around. The farms worked by Euro-Canadians, Indians, and Métis before and after 1867 are usually depicted in a similar way, although smaller and being worked by people, perhaps with the assistance of a horse or an ox. But did you know that planting one crop in linear rows is a very recent change in the Americas? Rather than using rows and scattered seed, Aboriginal people originally used a system of cropping called today by its Maya name, 'milpa' — in fact many of you who keep gardens are probably already familiar with it.

A milpa is simply a mound of dirt planted with (usually) three plant species. The Maya and the Iroquois planted their milpas with the Three Sisters: maize, beans, and squash. Around the mounds grew still other plants, until very recently usually mistaken for weeds by those unfamiliar with the technique. Those other plants provide natural insecticides and help crowd out 'true' weeds, as well as providing green mulch and ground cover to help prevent loss of water and topsoil. Milpas could also be planted in groups in limited areas, for example open clearings in the forest or the open areas between collared trees. The distance between each milpa helped stop the spread of plant diseases and pests and helped with weeding.

While it is true that the Three Sisters provide all of the proteins we need in our diets that otherwise we get from meat, maize, beans, and squash aren't called siblings on account of how they fit our needs. They are referred to in this way because of how they help each other when planted together in a milpa. The maize, planted in the centre, provides support for the bean and squash plants. The bean plant fixes nitrogen in the soil while the squash plant provides ground cover, helping to prevent water and soil loss. Recent studies have shown that food production from milpas can be up to fifty times higher than for linear row, monoculture farming. (However, I couldn't find a comparison between milpas and linear row multiculture farming.) Euro-Canadians learned how to plant milpas from the Iroquois, Maya, Aztecs, and Algonkians, and this mode of farming continued to be used all over Canada until the early 20th century.

Considering the fact that the prairies are prone to stretches of several years of drought and generally have windy weather, the shift away from milpa farming may seem rather strange. But at the time, the decision to switch seemed like the best possible idea.

New farm machinery was promising to make it much easier to fulfill the requirements of the federal land settlement programs, which involved clearance and eventual harvest of a certain amount of land within three years. They made it possible for even smaller families to take over large land parcels with a view to providing land parcels to children and grandchildren. All of those machines depended on fields being planted with one crop in linear rows for best results. The aftermath of World War II emphasized the trend due to its toll in lives, the postwar economic boom, and the fact that many Canadians opted to live in cities at that time.

Today the studies mentioned above are part of an effort to better understand and reintroduce Aboriginal agricultural techniques. While we probably won't be able to switch back completely to fields of milpas rather than rows, it looks like a hybrid method of planting may be the solution that works.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:38 MDT