Meskwakis grow organic food to honor ancestors

T-R PHOTO BY MIKE DONAHEY Red Earth Garden Food Stand Coordinator Shelley Buffalo prepares an order of organic vegetables at the facilty as a customer looks on recently. As a business program of the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative, REG offers products for sale to the public through its Tribally Supported Agriculture program.

Every Wednesday afternoon from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. is a busy one at Red Earth Gardens’ (REG) pack shed.

Staff are busy organizing a variety of organically-grown vegetables for customers to pick up in the heart of the Meskawki Settlement.

So far this season there has been broccoli rabe, kale, kohlrabi, komatsuma, green onions, peas, oak leaf lettuce, power green salad mix, purslane, radishes, red fire lettuce and more.

As July turns to August, and August to September, different produce will be available.

REG is easy to find – just south of the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel complex – 1401 305th Street, Tama.

It is not a traditional grocery store where one can walk in nearly any hour any day to buy a few green onions or radishes, pay a cashier and walk out. Nor is it like some farmers market. The differences are stark.

Now in its fifth year, REG is part of the Meskwaki Food Sovereignty Initiative Enterprise.

It sells only fresh, certified-organically grown produce taken from a lush and green 40-acre farm outside its door.

REG grows a diversity of vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers and dry beans without chemicals fertilizers or pesticides.

To be labeled organic, a business must meet rigid United States Department of Agriculture guidelines, pass inspections and not use chemicals, fertilizers or pesticides for a three-year period. Conversely, to be labeled “natural” a product is not to contain artificial ingredients or added color, and must be only minimally processed, per USDA, as reported by

“We are honored at the opportunity to serve you by working hard to provide quality produce from Iowa’s original organic farmers, the Meskwaki!” wrote REG Farm Production Manager Grant Shadden in the REG’s “Food is Medicine” promotional brochure.

Conversely, some supermarkets or farmer’s markets do not carry organic fruits or vegetables or only a limited amount. And REG fresh is fresh – some foods hand-picked hours before packed.

To maintain quality, staff quickly transport to the pack shed and remove field heat.

Finally, share customers save money, versus what one might pay for organic produce in a supermarket.

It works this way: non-tribal members purchase $300 “shares” before picking up their first box. Tribal members may purchase shares by other means.

For 15 weeks (beginning mid-June) shareholders receive a box of produce with a copy of “Food is Medicine” newsletter through the growing season. It offers information, recipes and more.

Shareholders and tribal members must come weekly to the REG. Proceeds are used by REG to buy seeds and growing supplies.

REG also generates income via its farm stand on wheels set up at the Meskwaki Trading Post and on Friday nights at the Toledo Farmers Market.

This year, REG reached out to Marshalltown, and four households purchased shares. They take turns driving over to pick up the produce.

Jessica Kinser of Marshalltown is one.

“I really enjoy getting fresh vegetables every week for the summer,” she said. “I was not able to plant a garden this year. Yet, I wanted the experience of having fresh vegetables.

“And it has been great so far to get a huge variety of produce I never would have thought to grow or try. I grew up eating kohlrabi, that was something my grandmother grew. It is fun to get that every week and be able to try new recipes.”

Jillanna Valbrecht of Marshalltown was attracted by health features.

“I was looking to cook healthier,” she said. “More fresh produce available for our family … my husband and I work full-time, so we do not have time to garden … it is not feasible with three young children, 7, 5 and 3. We thought we would give it a try. So far, we are happy. The produce is fresh. My husband and kids like it.”

Valbrecht hopes Marhalltownians take advantage of the program next year thereby inducing REG to deliver weekly.

Shadden – a 2000 Marshalltown High School graduate who began his REG tenure earlier this year – also touted the produce’s health benefits for tribal members, since some Native Americans have a propensity for diabetes.

“We’ve promoted healthy eating to tribal members,” he said.

2017 has been a busy one for REG.

Earlier this year it cohosted with MFSIE a successful Intertribal Food Summit, which attracted 300 participants from North America.

Shadden said work crews have had to overcome the weather.

“A winter that did not want to go away eventually succumbing to unseasonably hot spring days that were more appropriate for mid-summer,” he wrote in Food is Medicine. “The crew has not given up, and we have begun to get into as much of a rhythm as they can.”

REG is working on an online store to make it more convenient for shareholders.

For more information, contact 641-484-4678, or via US Postal address, 349 Meskwaki Rd., or its Facebook page.

Editor’s Note: Writer Donahey and family are REG shareholders.


Contact Mike Donahey at 641-753-6611 or