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The MHA Nation Wants to Feed the World in a Food Sovereignty Revolution

Greenhouses in Westland, Netherlands

In 2017, Mark Fox, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, stumbled across an article in National Geographic that he couldn’t stop thinking about. The headline read, “This Tiny Country Feeds the World,” followed by “The Netherlands has become an agricultural giant by showing what the future of farming could look like.”

For a country that ranks 131st in the world in terms of area — slightly bigger than the state of Maryland — the Netherlands is using high-tech greenhouses and other technology-enabled farming practices to change agriculture around the world. 

“Lo and behold, I come across this article in National Geographic and learned that in the Netherlands, they’re utilizing greenhouses 24/7 to become the leading exporter of agricultural products in the world,” Fox told Native Business Magazine. “It just really moved me.”

“There was just kind of a growing feeling in myself, an urge that said, ‘you can’t forget this,’” he said. “Despite all the hundreds of things I have to deal with on a daily basis, despite all these massive challenges I face every day, I said, ‘Do not let this go. You’ve got to do this.’”

Chairman Mark Fox during the MHA Nation delegation’s tour of greenhouses in the Netherlands

“It’s one of the keys to ensuring that we survive, to ensuring that our Nation will go into the future, growing our own crops, generating our own power, protecting our water sources, maximizing our water sources, creating products to export so that when times do get rough, we’ve got a system in place that can really survive any difficulties that might lie ahead,” he said. “Then, hope will really flow out to Indian Country.”

This sparked a chain of events in Fox’s mind that culminated in him recently leading a delegation to the Netherlands. There, he met with government officials, saw these facilities for himself, and began planning how he could replicate their successes in an economic and food revolution for the MHA Nation.

“The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara is a Nation that has always been an agricultural Tribe,” Fox said. “At one time, we were an aboriginal trade center, because of the crops we raised, including corn, beans and squash. We’ve already had this tradition of gardening and raising crops and making them part of our economy.”

“So when I read that article, it was just like putting a puzzle together,” he said. “Here’s somebody that’s doing something that’s in line with our history, in line with what we’ve done before, and with our opportunities now going from what we had in the past to the energy development that’s occurring today. It made a lot of sense to go over, see what they’re doing, learn, and get an opportunity to reestablish what we were [doing] at one time.”

After the Pick-Sloan Program led to the construction of the Garrison Dam in the early 1950s, the MHA Nation’s agricultural economy was destroyed. The fertile bottom land where the Tribe planted crops was flooded, the Tribe was forced to high ground, and they became dependent on the federal government like other Tribes, Fox said. The Tribe has been working to recover from those events ever since.

“So later in all this time, although we have some farmland that exists on Fort Berthold — less than 1,000 acres or so — that’s always been leased out primarily to non-Indians,” Fox said. “So after seeing that remarkable article, the first thing that popped into my mind is ‘Well, what one man can do, so can another.’”

“And we have such a wonderful history of growing food products,” he continued. “So why not this? Why not revitalize and revive our farming tradition and go to another level? And that’s how it began.”

A variety of tomatoes at Tomatoworld in the Netherlands

***

One of the other features of the Netherlands’ system outlined in the National Geographic article, which Fox now carries around with him as both a reference and reminder of his goal, is how the country is capturing, compressing, and utilizing gas from their energy and refinery development to grow food all year long. 

“These greenhouses are anywhere from a couple hectares all the way up to 40 acres,” Fox said. “Forty acres is a quarter of a section, and that’s not small, so there really are some massive greenhouses there, but they’re using technology, and that’s the thing that’s really amazing and inspiring.”

It’s an incredibly efficient system. Growers use natural gas to power generators, creating electricity to power lighting for both facility visibility and growth. The byproducts of the generators — like heat and carbon dioxide — also serve a purpose. The heat, naturally, is used to keep the greenhouses warm, while the carbon dioxide — a key part of the plants’ photosynthesis process — is used to enhance growth.

This made the MHA Nation a perfect fit, as the Tribe is currently in the middle of an oil and gas boom due in part to their location on the Bakken shale formation. In December 2018, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation produced nearly 294,000 barrels of oil per day — roughly one-fifth of the state’s overall production.

Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) — the process to get oil and gas out of shale formations like the Bakken — leads to three products coming out of the ground. The first is wastewater, or the water that’s used to break apart shale layers. The second is the highly-valued crude oil, which is what developers are interested in extracting and hauling away. And the third is gas.

Fox says that because the gas market isn’t as lucrative as the crude is, it’s frequently burned off, or flared. That’s both a problem and an opportunity.

“We’ve got a lot of flaring, which is a lot of waste,” he said. “What’s happening is nobody’s getting paid when they flare that. When it’s burned, it’s wasted. The land owner doesn’t get paid. The oil company doesn’t get paid. It doesn’t enter any form of value into the market.”

“So you’ve got the regular captured gas that we can use off of the gas lines that exist near our greenhouses, and then there’s the flared gas, which is a second form,” he continued. “We can do remote gathering, compress that gas, and put it into usable form like NGL, or natural gas liquids. Then we bring that over, store it, and boom, we run our greenhouses off of that.”

“So we’re going to end this waste,” he said. “We’re going to capture this gas, and by golly, while we’re doing it, we’re going to grow food, making it a major part of our economy and our own consumption.”

This gives the greenhouse project four unique benefits to the MHA Nation. First, it strengthens the Tribe’s sovereignty and allows them to become more self-reliant. Second, it promotes healthy eating and healthy behaviors by getting food that comes out of the ground, which is healthier than others that are readily available. Third, it reduces waste and is a new use for an otherwise unused resource. And fourth, by demonstrating that it can be done, the MHA Nation’s efforts become a model that can be spread across Indian Country as another strong form of economic development. 

The MHA Nation delegation at the Dutch Ministry

***

Even though the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, at just under one million acres, is only about one-tenth the size of the Netherlands, the way that the small northwestern European country is using technology to drive agricultural advancements offers a lot to learn. Hence, in April, Chairman Fox led a delegation there for several days of meetings with government officials, farmers, and others involved in the country’s farming breakthroughs.

One of the groups that the delegation met with was the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality. From them, Chairman Fox says that he learned that in order to make the food revolution work, multiple stakeholders have to have a seat at the table.

“For someone in my position, I saw that it can’t be total government control; it can’t be government doing 100 percent of what needs to be done,” he said. “You hear that over and over. It’s almost like a three-part partnership.”

The first part, he says is education — educational entities and institutions. Then you have producers, the businesses who are in the fields and making money. And finally, there’s the government. 

“So they’re all coordinating together, not just the government saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it,’” he said. “They’re relying on each other to make decisions on how to go about it. They have different perspectives, but at the same time, unity.”

Chairman Mark Fox gestures in front of green pepper plants at a greenhouse in the Netherlands.

***

In addition to the way that the Dutch greenhouses are using natural gas — which Fort Berthold has an abundance of — Fox says that the hands-on approach taken by the growers was another eye-opening experience. 

“It is very sophisticated,” he said. “But one of the things that we learned going over and visiting in the Netherlands is that it’s a day to day thing. The people that we visited said that the most important person in all of this is what they call their growers. They go up and down and they watch rows and rows and rows of the plants in these huge greenhouses, and they literally know each plant and how it changes each and every day.”

“That’s not something everybody automatically has,” Fox continued. “It’s a technology and skill that has to be acquired. The reality is those growers, those people who are going to be on hand, watching that plant day to day, are going to be so significant and important.”

As a result, Fox sees the need to create partnerships with the Netherlands and other countries undertaking similar programs, in which people tending the MHA Nation’s greenhouses can get the proper training. With needs for growers to mind the plants as well as technology experts to build, implement, or oversee the technology, job and training opportunities will be plentiful. 

“We need to work with our local colleges to create degree programs for these things,” he said. “There’s a big technology part, using computers to constantly analyze the air inside, remember temperature controls, make sure we know how much oxygen and how much CO2 there is. All of these have instrument panels, and it’s very high tech.”

“This isn’t just like build a greenhouse, let the sun shine in, and water some plants and that’s it,” he said.

Chairman Mark Fox and MHA Nation Councilman Cory Spotted Bear hold tomatoes in front of Tomatoworld in the Netherlands.

***

As of right now, the MHA Nation’s food sovereignty project is still in the planning stages. After the delegation’s visit to the Netherlands, they realized that there’s a lot of work that has to be done to bring it to fruition. Fox says that they’ve got sites located for the first set of greenhouses, and his team is working on finding center gas lines, water lines, and building out transportation on the land itself. 

“I’ve got a team, but we didn’t get really aggressive on it until about four or five months ago,” he said. “I hired engineers; I hired some people that are experienced in growing crops; I hired people that are experts in water; I hired staff and good organizers. So now I’ve got a dozen-plus people, so let’s focus on what we need to do here to make this a reality and do a prototype of maybe one to two hectares, or a three- to five-acre facility.”

“Let’s make it small, but let’s make it successful,” he said. “Then, we’ll roll off from there.”

He says his hope is that the first facility will be built and operational within about 15 months, with the actual products being ready to sell and utilize within two years. Once it’s up and running, he’d like to grow products that, because they’re difficult to get for most of the year, are not readily fresh and have to be imported from the east coast or other countries.

“You know if it’s fruit, maybe it’s strawberries,” he said. “If it’s vegetables, then maybe it’s going to be cabbage — something that we can grow but that we have difficulty getting because it has to be transported up.”

He says his long-term dream is that once everything is fully operational and the MHA Nation returns to its status as an agricultural powerhouse, the Tribe’s early days as an aboriginal trade center will also be reestablished. One day, he’d like to walk into a Wal-Mart in Bismarck or Minot, North Dakota — or elsewhere. There, he’d like to walk through the produce section and see fruits and vegetables grown in Fort Berthold that people are grabbing off the shelves. 

Successful completion of this project, he says, will open doors for Indian Country and send a really strong message that cannot be ignored. First, it will show other Tribes that this is something they can do. Then, after realizing that this is something they can do, will make them decide it’s something they want to do. And finally, they’ll decide that this is something they absolutely must do.

When other Tribes start experiencing this, he says it will only continue to open up more opportunities and will spread like fire.

“There is some irony to all this,” Fox said. “A European group of people, Dutch explorers, really very early, came into northern Canada, to the East coast, even coming in as far as where we live. All that happened, and then there were the radical changes that occurred.”

“Now, suddenly it’s 2019, 150 to 200 years later, and now the same group of people that were impacted, indigenous people, are going to Europe looking at what they have now and saying, ‘that’s similar to what we used to have.’

“Now we’re going to take that back to where we’re from,” Fox said. “And that’s pretty darn amazing.”

The MHA Nation delegation tours a tomato greenhouse at Tomatoworld in the Netherlands.

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