Dec 23, 2021
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has tribal department of agriculture

In the years since University of Connecticut Extension Educators began working more extensively with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the project has been fruitful. There has been growth in agricultural production, food security, and health for the members of the nation.

Building on that success, the Tribal Nation recently reached another exciting milestone – the creation of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Department of Agriculture. The MPTN Department of Agriculture formalizes the education, nutrition, and farming work already done in collaboration with UConn College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Extension, with Extension Educators Joseph Bonelli and Shuresh Ghimire, who are leading the efforts along with Tribal Nation Councilor Daniel Menihan and others.

“Menihan has been actively involved in this project from the get-go and has helped us remarkably achieve the grant goals and strengthen the relationship between UConn and the tribe,” Ghimire said.

Jeremy Whipple, tribal member and executive director of the Tribal Department of Agriculture said, “That first step of building the program is doing what we hoped it would accomplish, and that is getting people back to an agricultural way of life, which has been the challenge for us.”

The existence of a department of agriculture in the community now makes it easier for tribal members to access the information they need to conduct extension and other programs such as UConn 4-H in the tribal reservation.

“Now people call Extension and ask us for assistance and advice and that has been very helpful for the community,” Whipple says. “I see a lot more tribal members gardening throughout the community.”

From the outset, the program has included a variety of projects where extension educators work closely with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, from conducting youth development programs to further developing the nation’s farm, called Meechooôk Farm.

“The tribal nation was interested in increasing the agricultural operation and each year we are seeing great progress. The hope was to create a long lasting and sustainable agricultural sector at the tribal nation,” says Bonelli, who helped write the Tribal Nation’s agriculture business plan. “The first few years of the project have helped to bring that process along.”

Whipple says the help from UConn Extension has been instrumental in emphasizing the need to build sustainability within the nation: “The main challenge was just getting the people to get back into believing this is who we are culturally, that’s been our main focus.”

Engaging the community is a big part of that.

“Every step of the way we are working with tribal youth and education with tribal members,” says Bonelli. “Through the leadership from Whipple and others at the tribal nation and with help from Extension educators, they are expanding by planting additional crops, such as vegetable crops, growing from seed, putting in fruit trees. Every year there has been a progression, and accomplishments on an annual basis.”

Whipple says there are plans to expand the sugar shack offerings, which currently sells maple syrup that is sold to Foxwoods Casino.

“The farm the Tribal Department of Agriculture oversees is going to continue growing produce and eventually become a winery,” Whipple says. “We are planning to raise cattle as well. The business is continuing to grow, and all of this will benefit the community.”

Ghimire adds that UConn Extension will continue to play a role with the Tribal Department of Agriculture, including to continue serving as a resource for questions and expertise related to vegetable production, nutrition, farm business management, youth education, and beyond. The FRTEP funding also provides salaries for two part-time employees who will help the Tribal Department of Agriculture accomplish their goals.

The tribal nation is currently working toward one of those goals by converting two high tunnels into a hydroponic growing operation, with the help of Extension specialists.

“That’s going to be a huge revenue stream for us because we will be able to grow year-round,” says Whipple.

The experience and knowledge gained through the process of establishing the Tribal Department of Agriculture is invaluable, and Whipple says they are eager to share their knowledge with other tribes in the region.

“We plan to keep going and want to get all of the tribes in the Northeast on the same page, supplying each other with our products.”

The original grant that made this project possible is through a Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) grant from USDA-NIFA awarded to extension educators Mary Concklin and Joseph Bonelli and former extension educator Miriah Russo Kelly.

Elaina Hancock, UConn Communications

Photo at top: A member of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation harvests crops at the farm located in North Stonington. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and UConn Extension have been collaborating thanks to a USDA Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program to enhance agricultural production, food security, and health of tribal community members. Photo: UConn

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