When the Cheyenne River Youth Project® first began its organic garden in 1999, staff members at the 26-year-old, not-for-profit youth organization scarcely could have imagined where that little garden would take them. Now, 16 years later, the thriving 2-acre Winyan Toka Win (“Leading Lady”) garden is the beating heart of the youth project — and it’s quickly becoming a veritable micro farm.
Today, sustainable agriculture at CRYP supports nutritious meals and snacks at the Main youth center for 4- to 12-year-olds and at the Cokata Wiconi teen center. It provides fresh ingredients for the farm-to-table Keya (“Turtle”) Cafe, and merchandise for the Keya Gift Shop and seasonal Leading Lady Farmers Market. To continue pursuing its long-term vision for the initiative, CRYP has invested in a new irrigation system, a garden redesign, and a composting system.
Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director, said she hopes the new planting areas and water system will allow the youth project to increase its yields by 50 percent, and also increase outdoor-classroom use among teen interns who wish to become gardeners and farmers.
“Our garden is now the size of a community garden or micro farm operation,” Garreau said. “By providing valuable education and real-life work experience, our operation hopefully will encourage self-sufficiency on the Cheyenne River reservation, and empower the next generation to rely on their own abilities and on the land. We strive to achieve real food sovereignty, security and safety for our communities.”
Ethnobotanist Steven Bond worked closely with CRYP to design the new irrigation system and develop the new garden layout. Bond currently works for the Intertribal Agriculture Council as its technical assistance specialist in the Eastern Oklahoma Region and Western Region. His office is located in Stratford, Oklahoma, where he also owns and manages a small pecan orchard and organic farm.
“Steven has a wealth of knowledge about sustainable stewardship of the land, and his input was immensely helpful in starting to design and implement an even more sustainable and productive garden at CRYP,” Garreau said.
Bond has worked with CRYP in the past, discussing nutrition with staff members so they could create youth cooking classes, and teaching community classes in Modern Gardening Basics and Advanced Gardening / Farming.
During his classes, Bond noted that providing this assistance to the youth project staff was important to him, and he said hoped to see increasing community involvement in the 2-acre, naturally grown, pesticide-free garden.
“CRYP is a valuable resource for this community and should be considered an excellent example for other tribes and nontribal communities,” he said at the time. “The Intertribal Agricultre Council was honored to be included by the youth project in its mission to increase the quality of life of children and the Cheyenne River community by not only providing resources but also sharing with folks how to develop sustainable agriculture practices to generate wealth and ensure sovereignty.”
The most recent garden upgrades began last fall, when CRYP began the process of installing the new irrigation system, which was made possible through a USDA Community Facilities Grant. This system features all Rain Bird products and a revolutionary type of remote valve-operating clock. The team started work by digging down 8 feet, hooking they system up to local water, and bringing CRYP’s main line to the 5-foot level to prevent freeze damage.
Prior to the first autumn freeze, the team ran lines to each zone box, installed a system that would provide compressed-air blow-out capabilities, and added an irrigation back-flow device, which will prevent irrigation water from returning to the drinking water supply. Then, the team buried the main-line trench and made preparations for phase two of construction, installing valve boxes and final grade and bringing the water supply to each bed zone.
In May, the next phase of construction commenced. The team installed the valve assemblies at grade in the valve operating boxes, and it completed the low-voltage wiring to each valve assembly from the remote clock.
“Each valve in our system is self-contained, with features that are usually found only in the highest-end golf courses,” Garreau said. “We combined the needs of a farm operation with the versatility of a turf grass operation.”
The seven electric, automated valve assemblies give the CRYP team the ability to use hand-watering devices as needed on a per-zone basis to account for all water use, and to operate a manual hose or the automated drip system independently of each other. Manual valve operation for the drip system is available as needed.
The assemblies also can accommodate changes or expansion through a seventh zone that can supply future greenhouse or composting operations.
“We can water each zone independently on the drip system with a known watering plan of 0.66 gallons per hour per drip emitter,” Garreau said. “And, thanks to the moisture sensors, CRYP will only water when root zones require it, not just automatically or by line of sight from the surface.”
While in the final stages of installing the irrigation system, the CRYP team also embarked on a garden redesign. Winyan Toka Win had been a four-planting-zone operation with 102 beds that had to be retiled each year. Now, it comprises a permanent mound system of six planting zones and 202 beds; it also has changed from a mechanical farm operation to a hand-farming operation.
“It’s a better fit for an organic operation of our size,” Garreau explained.
By late May, CRYP completed all underground installations and all new mounds, and staff, teen interns and volunteers began planting each of the six new growing areas, complete with their drip lines and irrigation system support. To date, the team has planted radishes, lettuce, squash, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, several pepper varieties, strawberries and asparagus. More vegetables and fruit will come.
“Our first harvest date for the cool-weather crops is this month,” said Constantine Raether, CRYP’s sustainable agriculture manager. “We have more to plant as weather permits. We have been dealing with an overabundance of water this year, and dealing with soil inversions that happen over time.”
Raether also advised that CRYP will be ramping up its composting operations, with more volume and more items in the compost for faster breakdown of materials — and more available materials for the garden with a higher NPK ratio.
“Unfortunately, without a composting plant, we have to keep our composting to a smaller scale than our garden needs,” he said. “We do think we can meet our garden’s needs better in a two-year plan, with rotating piles for usable compost in terms of weeks rather than months or years.”
The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.