The Three Sisters


Modern day agriculture has become accustomed to the idea of food grown in mono crop rows, a structure designed for the supposed ease of the human, his machines, and markets, rather than for the plants themselves. At first glance, it may seem logical to isolate crop types, organizing them for the efficiency of harvest. But if one were to sit awhile, and truly learn from these plants, the truth is a mono crop system only leads to further complications that result in efforts to control and suppress. For example, corn is a plant that requires high levels of nutrients and water. Pests such as corn worms, can do a lot of damage to a crop. Grown alone, it is vulnerable to attack, and dependent on human’s for sufficient food and water. In the long run, the farmer will end up working many more hours, spraying chemicals repeatedly to kill any and all insects, including beneficial ones. The farmer will also spend hours feeding the corn high levels of war weaponry bi-product based nitrogen fertilizers. Due to corn being a monocot, with a shallow root system, it is also dependent on regular watering, as there is nothing to protect the ground’s surface from wind and sun dehydration. Not only does the farmer need to work harder, but a great deal of financial strain is also inevitable. Instead of forcing a dysfunctional system to continue, we need to stop and reevaluate the consequences of the original ignorantly flawed design. What would a sustainable agricultural system look like? It would be sustainable on multiples levels, requiring less labor while simultaneously fostering soil, plant, and eco-system health. It would use methods similar to preventative medicine, avoiding disease, which is simply the result of imbalance. Most importantly, it would look always to what consequence each action would eventually create. The Three Sisters is the name given to a trio crop grown by Native peoples from the lands of North, Central, and South Americas. It is an example of a sustainable agricultural system that fosters symbiotic relationships, thereby strengthening each individual plant, and consequentially strengthening the health of the whole. The pairing of these three sisters is by no means random. Each has its own gifts to share. In this sharing, all give of their natural gifts and are cared for accordingly. This relationship reflects the values of native tribes that grew these crops. Thus, the agricultural landscape is a direct reflection of her people. What do our modern agricultural landscapes reflect about our modern day value system? And would our values change, if we reshaped these landscapes? I believe so. The symbiotic relationship of the Three Sisters food Seneca Corn, Bare Bean, and Blue Hubbard Squash directly reflects the values of the people who originally grew them. In establishing these crops on the Indian Valley Organic farm campus, we not only provide a source of quality nutrition for the local community, but also strengthen native way wisdoms while integrating these values into our society.

Corn is a vital food for Native peoples. It provides carbohydrates that can be eaten fresh, or dried and ground for sustenance through the cold season. The Seneca corn grown on Indian Valley Organic Farm was brought to us by a young leader in her field. Kaylena Bray is the Native Foodways Program Director for The Cultural Conservancy. Kaylena brought the Seneca corn seeds from her homeland in New York State, where her family and tribe grows and protects this rare heirloom variety. It is particularly important that we are growing Seneca seed due to its endangered status. For the first two years, it was grown only for seed, so that it could be distributed for reintegration. Now, in the third year, we were able to grow enough to eat. It was ground into flour and distributed amongst Native populations, who would otherwise not have had access to this traditional food. Seneca corn is the eldest of the Three Sisters crop grown at the farm. She is the first to sprout, leading the way for her sisters. She grows straight and tall, creating a structure for her younger sister, the bean. Her leaves create shade for her youngest sister squash, who’s own foliage is sensitive to sunburn when wet. She reaches upwards to the sky, calling the rain.

The second sister, bean is a very important food in Native peoples diet. Beans contain high levels of protein. Corn eaten with beans nutritionally provides the right balance of carbohydrates and protein essential for health. Proteins build enzymes and muscular tissue while carbohydrates are a source of fuel for the body. The Bear bean is the second sister in our Three Sisters farm crop. Bear bean is also a traditional variety native to the mountains of Central America. In tropical regions she is a perennial. In North America, she is grown as an annual. Sprouting next, she intuitively knows to use her older sister, corn, as support, giving her the structure to grow upwards into the sky. Her lava red flowers entice hummingbirds, bees, and other pollinating insects. Her body offers a ladder with nooks and crannies where spiders and other predatory insects find shelter. Their presence keeps, what we would label as pests, in balance, thereby protecting the health of the entire Three Sister crop. Additionally, She has a very rare gift; the capacity to harvest nitrogen from the air. 78% 0f our atmosphere is made up of nitrogen gas. But most plants are incapable of using atmospheric nitrogen (N2). Instead, they rely on mineral nitrogen (NH3), nitrate, or ammonium. Beans transform this gas into vital food through a partnership with Rhizobium bacteria. The Bean creates an oxygen free nodule for the bacteria to flourish, and in turn the bacteria transforms the N2 Nitrogen into NH3 Nitrogen. The bean stores this nutrient source in nodules on their root system, and eventually will use it as food, growing its seed pod, which then feeds the people and begins the plan’t life cycle anew. When the task of growing seed is complete, her body withers and turns golden, giving back to the soil and future generations to come.

Squash is the third sister. On the farm, we are growing Blue Hubbard Squash which is also a variety traditionally grown by Native peoples. Originating out of South America, this species was brought to North America as early as the 16th century. The seeds cultivated today have been saved and distributed by Native caretakers. High in Vitamins A, B6, and C, as well as Beta-carotene, Calcium, Magnesium, and Iron, Squash provides essential nutrients and minerals which would be lacking in a diet of corn and beans alone. When the Three Sisters are eaten together, a powerful triad is completed, offering carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins; all that one needs in order to thrive. Squash is a protector on many levels. She sprawls her body out long across the ground, stretching around the base of the corn and beans, always reaching outwards beyond the last tall sister stalk. In doing so, she seeks sunlight, while simultaneously creating a protective ground cover. Earth left bare is vulnerable to wind, rain, and sun, easily drying out, or eroding. But squash’s big broad leaves and long snake like limbs cover the soils surface like the course spun wool of woven blankets, retaining moisture and warmth. Squash’s prickly leaves and stems are also those that belong to the protector. Every great warrior woman knows the art of defense; When needed, if it is strong, there is never need for attack. You hold your boundary. You claim your space. And in claiming what is hers, she simultaneously protects the space for others. Beneficial insects find homes under her, spiky stems deter hungry caterpillars and slugs from munching bean’s fragile stem, and her shadow suppresses weed growth that might otherwise overwhelm the crop.

On the farm, we had a few challenges growing these crops together. Last year we grew them in the traditional method, intermixed. But reports were they did not do so well. This year we planted the squash and beans behind the rows of corn, and offered the beans a fence to trellis upwards upon. The crop fared well as we diligently ushered in water through drip line irrigation. However, due to the drought, many plants in the wild which normally would be a source of food for animals were not available. The crows and raccoons were especially hungry and began feasting slightly before the crop hit maturity. This caused a dilemma, as it seemed unlikely there would be any crop left if we did not do something. Our choices were to act defensively, or offensively. An offensive approach would be to build an electric fence to keep the animals at bay; but we lacked the labor force to erect such a structure in such a short time. The defensive approach was to harvest all the remaining corn and store it somewhere safe. This is what we decided to do. Such is the way of the farmer. S/he must be flexible and dance in rhythm with the changing needs as they present themselves. A date on a calendar is quite meaningless to all beings except the human. The farmer must enter into the earth’s tracking of time, noticing growth patterns in correlation with the moon, noticing when the lizards cease to run about, noticing the change of smells on the wind. S/he must abandon her logical linear mind, and fall into an instinctual knowing. If one partners in such a way with the earth, they are allowing a relationship to develop. In this relationship an exchange of communication occurs, deepening ones learnings and ultimately shaping ones very identity, value system, and consequentially ones actions. From this perspective, it is possible that outer landscape can transform inner landscape. This is how evolution occurs. Here in lies hope for our children’s children.

What have our sisters taught us? If we listen and watch carefully, our outer landscapes indeed shape our inner ones. Corn is a humble leader, growing tall, reaching for the sky, calling out to the rain. She offers support to those who come after her, not by forcing her ways upon them, but by being herself and allowing those who wish to grow around her to do so. What has Bean taught us? She is a visionary healer, showing us that the only limitations are the ones we put upon ourselves. She reaches into other realms, gathering her gift and transforming it, for her own sustenance as well as for future generations to come. What has Squash taught us? She is an adventurous protector, staking new ground while simultaneously holding the space needed for growth, both her own and her sisters. When all three sisters give of their individual talents, their eco-system community as a whole flourishes. We as people, must recognize that nature is our teacher. The lessons are all around us, just waiting to shape us into the forms of corn, bean, and squash. The shapes and possibilities are endless! Yet there is one common thread that unites all and it is this; We do not have to give up, or force ourselves to be something that we are not. Each form has a special gift all one’s own. If we embrace our individual talents, looking to our plant and animal brothers and sisters for guidance, while always asking, what can I give to the world in thanks for all that I receive, we will- as a consequence- find community, belonging, health, and happiness. And the world, as a whole, shall flourish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s