How a community farm is helping one local tribe fight COVID-19
When tribal leaders from the Forest County Potawatomi Community started a farm, they had no idea the world would soon face a pandemic. But that’s what happened, and the farm proved to be a valuable resource.
Flags sway on the side of a rural highway in Forest County, announcing fresh eggs and grass-fed beef in bright, bold colors.
Behind an unassuming gravel driveway, pumpkins add a flash of color to a beige storefront.
Giant fans hum from an adjoined aquaponics facility.
“This is the fish tank, so there’s 600 to 700 fish in here right now,” Dave Cronauer points out from inside the facility. He’s the farm manager for the Bodwéwadmi Ktëgan — the Potawatomi Farm.
The farm, which has expanded every year since it started in 2017, is the location of a herd of bison, cows, chickens, pigs, honey bees, a maple syrup production, six hoop houses full of tomatoes, corn and native indigenous crops, and a giant corn maze.
“That’s one of the keys is being diverse to provide the tribe with what they need,” Cronauer says.
Tribal leaders started the Potawatomi Farm as a way to provide healthy food options to a food insecure community, with the added bonus of food sovereignty.
That mission has been put to the test by the COVID-19 pandemic.
When COVID disrupted normal life in Wisconsin, the Forest County Potawatomi Community was prepared with a steady supply of fresh meat and vegetables.
“Our first goal was to make sure our elders and our children would have food in times of need if that ever came about, and it kind of came to fruition with COVID hitting,” James Crawford, the tribe’s secretary, says.
Early in the pandemic, the tribe sent food in care packages to elders at no charge.
“That was a program that we as a council did so people would be fed and not have to go out to the stores,” Crawford explained.
Later, as supply chain and labor shortages challenged inventory at grocery stores, the Forest County Potawatomi Community continued harvesting vegetables and processing meat to maintain stable prices.
At a time of great uncertainty, the farm pulled through with fresh food for those who needed it most.
However, the Potawatomi Farm also has a more indirect way of combatting COVID-19.
Forest County is ranked among the least healthy places in Wisconsin. Of the state’s 72 counties, it is ranked 71 for health outcomes, coming only before Menominee County.
Like other American Indian communities in Wisconsin, heart disease, cancer and diabetes are among the leading causes of death.
Those are also factors that contribute to COVID-19 mortality, and they’re factors the farm is trying to tackle.
“When you eat grass-fed meat, you fill up quicker, you feel full longer, because it’s nutrient dense,” Cronauer explains. “One of the issues we have within the tribal community is heart disease, diabetes and obesity. So those are things we’re trying to fight, and this helps to do that.”
It’s hard to measure the exact impact the farm has on health outcomes.
Recent data on the number of visits to the health and wellness center has been skewed by COVID. And changing the eating habits of an entire community takes years and years to accomplish.
But demand for food produced by the Potawatomi farm keeps going up.
“Every year we sell more, we give more,” Cronauer says. “We’ve needed to expand our herds to meet those demands. Right now, we’re doing about a cow a week. When we started, we did 12 cows a year. Next year, will we be two a week? Maybe.”
The farm continues to look for more ways to get healthy food into the homes and stomachs of community members – whether that’s through subscription boxes or by partnering with local schools and daycare centers.
It’s the tribe’s way to fight COVID-19, diabetes, heart disease and obesity one steak at a time.