Reimagining the Three Sisters: Finding a New Symbiosis in Tribal Food and Energy Sovereignty

Agrivoltaics is agriculture + photovoltaics (renewable energy production from solar panels). (Photo Courtesy Metsolar)

The Three Sisters is a 5,000-year-old traditional agricultural method utilized by Native Americans to improve crop efficiency in limited space. The Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash — are natural companions that aid in each other’s growth, development and survival. The sturdy corn stalk provides structure for the beans to climb. The beans return nitrogen to the soil, feeding the corn and squash vital nutrients. Finally, the squash spreads across the ground, choking out weeds and maintaining moisture in the soil. The Three Sisters method is a reminder that by identifying natural synergies in the environment, we can improve the efficiency of the services provided by our ecosystems and reduce our impact on all the living things around us.

As exemplified by the Three Sisters, holistic approaches to problem solving are nothing new in Indian Country. Our ancestors borrowed knowledge from their ancestors to tackle the biggest problems facing their communities just as we do now. Climate change is rapidly altering our ecosystems with extreme weather patterns, rising seas, and the introduction of new plants and animals to an increasingly unfamiliar landscape. In developing its own climate plan, the elders of the Upper Snake River Tribes stressed a “holistic vision of ecosystems.” Thus, Indian Country can combat climate change by adopting food and energy production techniques that feed off the harmonies inherent in each system.

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation is already developing one such approach by utilizing waste energy from oil and gas development to grow food more intensively in greenhouses. There are a number of natural synergies between food, water and energy systems, as demonstrated by MHA Nation, that make the food-water-energy nexus a potentially lucrative arena for future Tribal energy projects.

At its most basic level, we need water to grow food. Whether it be pumping water from the ground or diverting it into irrigation ditches, we need energy to get that water to food. We also need water and energy to process, transport, clean and cook food. As such, farmers and energy professionals are now looking to understand how to improve the efficiency of the three systems together. Becoming more efficient with food, water and energy resources in the future will be critical to Tribal sovereignty and health. According to the United Nations, global water demand is expected to rise by 55 percent by 2050 and energy consumption will increase 85 percent by 2035. Since food production already accounts for 69 percent of water withdrawals globally and 30 percent of global energy use, the continued value of our food production will directly relate to the efficient use of scarce water and energy resources. For Native communities to survive and thrive in these stressful conditions, we need to reimagine the Three Sisters and develop new ways to integrate Tribal food and energy resources.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that there are around 61 gigawatts of solar potential on Tribal lands representing approximately $70 billion in investment. In the past few months, the Navajo Nation announced a planned 660-acre solar farm in New Mexico; a Standing Rock Sioux Reservation solar farm will become the largest in North Dakota; and the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund provided grants to more than a dozen solar projects with Tribal partners across the United States. Solar is fulfilling its potential as big business in Indian Country. What can we do to maximize its impact in our communities and take advantage of its symbiosis with food systems?

The answer is agrivoltaics, a method that integrates agricultural practices within the solar farm. Early examples of this integrative approach to food and energy co-production are yielding impressive results. The State of Minnesota recently issued guidelines for restoring grasses and landscapes around solar panels. The policy is proving to be a boon for bees that prefer to feed on the native plants. One brewery is taking advantage of this by using the honey that the bees produce from pollinating plants around solar farms to enhance their beer.

Research shows that the solar panels can create a microclimate where plants can thrive. The panels provide shade for the plants and improve soil moisture. One study in Oregon found that the areas around solar panels were 328 percent more water efficient, the plants growing under the panels had higher nutritional value, and the ground around the panels maintained higher soil moisture through the hot, summer months. When done correctly, a plot can produce renewable solar energy and grow crops that require less water with greater nutritional value. For regions where grazing is a more common agricultural practice, solar plant operators are hiring local sheep herders to maintain weed populations and vegetation around the panels.

Food, water and energy systems are inextricably linked because changes to one system invariably impact the other two systems. Our ancestors found ways to marry different plants in a combination that improved the likelihood of a successful harvest and gave the community a better chance of surviving the winter. As we experience ecosystem upheaval and recalibration through climate change, we cannot forget the lessons learned by our ancestors. Finding symbiosis is the key to thriving, and agrivoltaics may be one strategy to ensuring Tribal food and energy sovereignty.

Clifton Cottrell is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. He is a PhD student at the University of Maryland focusing on Tribal Climate and Energy Policy. Clifton is a UMD Global Steward and supported by the National Science Foundation’s National Research Traineeship- Innovations at the Food-Energy-Water Systems (NRT-INFEWS) program.