Farm helps heal New Jersey Native American community


By Michele S. Byers

On paper, the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Sussex County looks like a start-up, but deep down it’s a charity whose purpose is to feed, heal and support members of the turtle clan of Ramapough Lenape Nation.

This Native American tribe historically lived in what is now northern New Jersey and southern New York.

Munsee Three Sisters is one of many new initiatives supported by the Foodshed Alliance’s Affordable Farmland Leasing Program on Preserved Land, known as the Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE).

“The farm is there because it is needed,” said Michaeline Picaro, who co-founded it with clan chief Vincent Mann. “Our community must be a caring community, focused on healthy eating and healing. It is our life, our vision.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm is an inspiring example of how a New Jersey tribe looks to the future while honoring its past.

The turtle clan has around 5,000 members, Picaro said, and many struggle to secure basic necessities like food, health care, shelter and heating for the winter.

The Ramapough Lenape Nation is recognized by the State of New Jersey, but not by the federal government. This means it does not get the same benefits, such as land and health facilities, often given to federally recognized tribes.

“We don’t have a reservation,” Picaro noted, and the tribe members do not live together in community.

She and Mann, who reside in Sussex County, decided a few years ago that starting a farm could help them take care of their people and build a community.

Fate intervened in the fall of 2019 as they were driving to visit a relative. They spotted a sign saying SAgE along Route 206 in Newton and knew securing low-cost farmland could help them achieve their vision of raising the Turtle Clan.

“We said great, now we can grow food for our people. This is how we can help, ”Picaro recalled.

They qualified for 14 acres of farmland on a preserved site shared by several other new farm businesses.

“It was a very small step, but a very big one for us,” she said.

The “Munsee” in the name of the farm is a reference to a sub-tribe of the Lenapes. The term “medicinal” derives from the belief that healthy food is medicine, nourishing the body, mind and spirit.

“The food we produce is healing because it is pesticide free and grown in good soil,” Picaro said.

The crops are produced using organic methods, although she and Mann do not pursue organic certification. The “Three Sisters” celebrate corn, beans and squash, the three main crops of many indigenous peoples.

Last summer was the second farming season for Munsee Three Sisters. Picaro and Mann grew a variety of vegetables and herbs and raised a flock of 50 hens whose eggs they sold.

They also got a permit to grow hemp, a crop traditionally used by Native Americans to make fiber and medicine.

Picaro is developing a line of personal care products, such as body creams, using hemp and other natural ingredients. They also sell hemp oil, the active ingredient of which has a number of medicinal uses.

Like many startups, Munsee Three Sisters Farm has struggled to grow. Picaro and Mann take care of most of the farm work themselves, with only a handful of volunteers helping them on weekends.

They don’t mind working hard, but “it was too much for the number of people we have,” she said.

Next year should be better. They’ve invested in a used tractor and other farm equipment, which they hope will help double their food yield next summer. And if their hemp products take off, they’ll hire more help on the farm. One of their long-term goals is to plant an orchard of fruit trees.

“This is truly an affordable cure,” Picaro said, noting that many members of the Turtle Clan and other communities cannot afford market prices for quality, locally grown organic produce. “Why not make food and medicine affordable for everyone? “

To learn more about Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm, visit https://munseethreesisters.org/

To learn more about Native American Heritage Month, including Native American Heritage Day on November 26, visit https://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/

Michele S. Byers is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She can be reached at [email protected]


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