The People of One Fire’s county agent explains the “Three Sisters Thing”
Television has its Doctor Phil . . . POOF has its Doctor Ray . . . Dr. Ray Burden, that is. He has a high falluting degree from the University of Tennessee, but he also grew up eating Creek-fried river turtle, possum and sweet taters, brunswick stew, hush puppies, johnny cakes, corn fritters AND learned how to count numbers in Creek. In other words, he won’t laugh at you when you say that you would like to grow your own food, using traditional Native American and Maya methods.
Ray and his wife of over four decades, Bonnie, have managed a cow dairy, owned a sheep farm, plus owned a feed, seed & livestock supply store. For many years, he was director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County, TN Agricultural Extension Office then in the past decade has become an internationally recognized expert on emergency preparedness. He travels all over the world, teaching workshops on this subject. Ray and Bonnie are in the midst of moving to a 4 acre mini-farm, 2000 feet up the side of a very large mountain.
Our previous agriculture article described my experiments concerning Native American agricultural practices. Never, anywhere in the Americas, have I seen indigenous farmers growing corn, beans and squash together. Books about American Indians, written by white people like to call them the Three Sister Crops. Virtually all anthropology and American history books state that our ancestors grew these crops together. When I grew these crops together, the bean and squash plants were stunted . . . basically useless.* I concluded that the Three Sisters Thing was a myth. In this article, Doctor Ray will explain scientifically why the Three Sisters Thing is a myth.
* Guess some folks will be questioning my qualifications for carrying out agricultural experiments. I was literally one of the pioneers of the Back to Nature Movement and was eventually named Farmer of the Year by the US Soil Conservation Service.
The Three Sisters Thing
Doctor Ray – “Beans/legumes fix nitrogen. The process is concentrated in the many small nodules seen on the roots of the plants. This process of nitrogen fixation requires the proper bacteriua are present in the soil. These bacteria must have a high degree of organic matter in the soil for maximum efficiency. Thus, your use of biochar/mulch/wood ashes, etc., literally sets a banquet table for the nitrogen fixing bacteria.
At one time, beans and corn were planted literally in the same row. The bean “runners” would attach to the corn stalks. It was also thought that the nitrogen fixing ability of the beans would benefit the corn which is a heavy nitrogen feeder. Unfortunately, most of the nitrogen fixed by the bacteria really wasn’t available for the corn until the beans died (which is too late for the current corn).
Bottom line – crop rotation is the answer. Plant the legumes the first year, follow that the next year with the corn.”
POOF – So are you saying that the “historical fact” really originated in mainstream American farming practices? Evidently someone, somewhere decided that the “Indians” first invented this way to grow crops.
Doctor Ray – “I don’t about the story of Native Americans growing beans and corn together – I will defer to you on that subject. I do know that it was and still is practiced by some individuals in their gardens, but with limited success. Corn is a heavy feeder and will literally take up all the nutrients first. You saw that first hand when you tried to mix the corn and beans.
Those who have success with the interplanting inevitably use high levels of fertilizer. They think the beans provide nitrogen for the corn but they are actually forced to use large amounts of fertilizer because they are feeding both the corn and beans. The practice is not considered experimental, just inefficient! Always blame Native Americans, when your own practices don’t work.
My background has ingrained into me to only recommend practices that are based on fact/research. This does not mean that alternative practices may be equally effective. My experience has been that many of the alternative approaches cannot always be replicated to another situation or site. As you know from your own experiences working with NRCS (the old Soil Conservation Service) and Extension, there are a variety of options available but I go with what I know has a solid background. There are always local variations and variables that must be taken into account.
-Ah, once again, you have awakened the ol’ county agent in me.”
POOF – What are your thoughts on organic farming? For me personally, the Creek-Maya-organic way is the most cost efficient means to grow my own food. I only cultivate by hand tools. I use a wooden planting stick like my Creek ancestors. I use some commercial fertilizer and insecticides, but not much. I use lots of lime . . . but that’s considered “organic.” If I went out an bought an $800-1200 cultivator-tiller, however, my “organic” food might be much better for me, but would cost much more than purchasing vegetables in a supermarket.
Doctor Ray – “I think “organic” is great if it works. Unfortunately many people think it is the only way to produce healthy food. It is certainly the natural process for food production. Unfortunately, not every locale is in an optimum environment (soil, weather, moisture, etc.) for true organic production. May times we have to balance production efficiency with our desire to produce a “pure” product. Just look at your own garden – beautiful, natural, healthy. You have had to supplement the soil (mulch, compost, ashes, etc.) to make it productive and provide additional water during times of drought. I think that is great! . . . but to do that on a large commercial scale in the Southern Highlands becomes virtually impossible unless you have massive resources of labor and capital.
Over the years I worked with ag production from small scale to row-crop farms that were in the thousands of acres. The same could be said of livestock – small herds and flocks to cattle and dairy farms in the hundreds and thousands. On the smaller side, I worked with many producers to assist them with developing small scale commercial farms, both vegetable and livestock.
My greatest “gripe” has been with those individuals who feel that all commercial agriculture is “bad”. On more than one occasion I reminded groups that to push organic-only agendas is essentially an elitist practice. These individuals where horrified and called me a pawn of the factory farm industrial complex.
However, in reality, my argument was simple – Take a single mother with 2 children and an income of $42,000.00/year. If you compare the cost of purchasing basic food for her family at one of the large retail food chains (Walmart, Kroger, etc.) without regard to organic or “all-natural” versus purchasing the same food items but using only organic, all-natural, etc., her food costs increase by a minimum of ~50%. If she does this, then where does that extra money come from?
The result is she can buy food to supply her family with the basic nutrition necessary and still be able to meet other living expenses OR she can use the organic approach and give up other living expenses. It becomes not that the strong survive but the wealthy survive.
Bottom line, it is ALWAYS about BALANCE.”
POOF turning the history books upside down, once again
Did you know that some of the ancestors of the Creek People in southern Georgia raised chickens on a large scale long before the arrival of Europeans? All along archaeologists have been wrong in automatically labeling a Proto-Creek community site “Post European Contact,” when they dug up chicken bones.
Readers learned in a 2016 article in POOF that the Araucana chicken is indigenous to Peru. It was crossed with the smaller Medieval European chicken, which lays eggs year-round, to produce modern commercial poultry breeds. When bands of people migrated from eastern Peru to what is now Georgia, they brought their indigenous chickens with them . . . or was it the other way around? The Panoan Peoples of Eastern Peru and the Creek Indians of the Southeastern United States use the same word for chicken . . . totolose.
The Araucana chicken has been genetically analyzed recently by scientists in Peru. Its closest relative is a chicken raised by the Indus River Valley Civilization approximately 4,500 years ago. Archaeologists were wrong in assuming that chicken bones found on the coast of Peru were left by Polynesian picnickers. Now the evidence is pointing toward the Polynesians obtaining sweet potatoes, chickens and cassava plants from the peoples of South America.
In early 2017, POOF readers learned that the Bronze Age peoples of Southern Scandinavia originated in Southeastern Iran and the Indus River Valley. The same Bronze Age petroglyphs can be found in Denmark, Southern Sweden, North Georgia and New Zealand.
Someone really, really needs to invent a time machine!
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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