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The Three Sisters: Here’s How Indigenous People Farmed Sustainably

by Jonathan Cox

Found in: Blog

In appreciation of Indigenous People's Day, we wanted to highlight this intersection of Native American culture and sustainable agriculture.

The Three Sisters was a sustainable and dynamic agricultural system that successfully grew vegetables without use of fertilizers, tilling, and pesticides.

Native American women in the Iroquois Confederacy, who were believed to have been the main proponents of this system, developed this to grow Corn, Beans, and Squash at scale.

They accomplished this by playing on the strengths of each plant to help the other.

For example, corn - usually the tallest of the three - would provide structure and height for the beans to grow and vine alongside it. Beans, on the other hand, would create support for strong winds as well as fixate nitrogen in the soil - a natural fertilizer system. Squash, the base plant, would protect the surrounding soil from heat and preserve moisture. It would also ward off animals and critters that would otherwise eat from the crops with its spiked leaves.

Original 'Three Sisters in Soil' from Cornell University: https://blogs.cornell.edu/hort/2018/01/12/three-sisters-in-soil-wins-global-soil-painting-competition/

What can we learn from the Three Sisters?

If you've ever farmed before, you'll quickly realize that good, healthy soil is key when growing outdoor crops over any period of time.

Our reliance on fossil fuels and tillage will ultimately lead to progressive soil erosion. Lack of diversity in monocultures has also been a cause for concern in conventional agriculture.

Usually, in conventional agriculture, its very common for farmers to use this practice - or adding compost - to enrich the soil after its been utilized to grow a harvest. In the Three Sisters case, however, using Beans to fixate nitrogen in the soil does this naturally, without adding outside elements - chemical or otherwise.

On top of that, constantly stirring up soil makes crops such as these miss out on the benefits of a cohesive mycelium network, that has been shown to boost the quality of crops over time that are grown in a polycultural manner.

This doesn't have to be the case, though. We have and had all the answers we need to grow food sustainably here in America. Let us all use this day to reflect on the history and honorable culture of Native American and indigenous people all around the world - as they are for the most part the biggest proponents of our ability to Grow Next Door and work in harmony with our natural environment.

In the spirit of sharing information on a subject that needs all eyes on it, in our research we found that cornell.edu was a major resource in highlighting and shedding light on this specific Native American agriculture technique. Kudos to them. Please feel free to watch their video on the subject, narrated by one of their agronomist professionals, Jane Mt Pleasant.

Associate Proefessor Jane Mt Pleasant, giving a discourse on the cropping system of The Three Sisters in Iroquois agriculture.