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by Claudia Herrera Hudson

Jane Mt. Pleasant, Cornell University
(a href=http://hort.cals.cornell.edu/people/mt_pleasant.cfm)

At a time when most agricultural and food scientists have shifted their focus to biotechnology, large-scale cropping, research, marketing, and modern innovation, Jane Mt. Pleasant has instead looked to the past for answers to today's farming needs. An agricultural scientist and professor of horticulture, as well as the director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University in New York, Mt. Pleasant has turned to her Iroquois heritage for farming and cultivation techniques as useful to modern farmers as they were centuries ago.

"Three Sisters" by Eunice Henry
Focusing on the ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) tradition of polyculture, a method of what is now referred to as sustainable agriculture, wherein individual plants can prosper, she has devoted her attention primarily to the "Three Sisters": beans, corn, and squash. The 'Sisters' are considered by the Iroquois nations to be a gift from the Creator, three nutritive crops that thrive when grown together despite distinctly different personalities. The three sisters are also part of the Iroquois creation story, and an integral facet of Iroquois culture.

Through the Iroquois method, the three crops are grown together on the same plot, imitating nature, and allowing the plants to use their natural defenses and abilities to protect their own sustenance. The corn and squash help prevent the growth of weeds, the corn also supports the upwardly climbing bean plants as beanpoles, and in return, the beans produce nitrogen, which aids in plant growth and soil quality.

Corn Ears

While impressive in its large scale, modern day farming is actually much riskier, in that in order to yield massive harvests of one particular staple, this practice of monoculture (growing only one culture per plot) takes away much of the plants' ability to help other species flourish, in turn, leaving them more exposed to disease and insects, and the potential for devastation of the whole plot.

Japanese beetles eating corn
Unlike the polyculture growing technique which includes recycling crop residues back into the soil to make it more fertile, and which offers vital element-producing plants that feed the soil important nutrients, the monoculture method typically strips and depletes the soil, leaving it in a worse condition than it was originally. Consequently, the topsoil becomes prone to erosion, and this erosion oftentimes creates a runoff into nearby water sources. Thanks to environmentally unsound fertilization and pest-reducing practices, this runoff is oftentimes toxic. So, while polyculture focuses on the well-being of the plants AND soil for long-term harmony, monoculture simultaneously strips the land of nutrients it needs for long-term survival, and pollutes local water sources, hurting both the animals in and near the water, and humans that use it as well.

Indian Corn Varieties
Through her work, Mt. Pleasant has also focused on revitalizing Native American culture, and agriculture, particularly in New York. She has helped preserve nearly-extinct heirloom corn varieties by documenting their prefered planting dates, population, nitrogen needs, etc. In turn, many Native American farmers have since taken up the task of revitalizing these corn varieties, which for centuries sustained Native communities in the Northeast and Canada.

As director of the American Indian Agriculture Project "that emphasizes conservation and distribution of traditional Iroquois open-pollinated corn varieties and the enhancement of indigenous agriculture," she regularly promotes the potential benefits of the Iroquois method of sustainable agriculture. In response, in 1998 she was awarded the Ely S. Parker Award from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which "recognizes a Native American scientist who has made outstanding contributions to Native peoples through research." Jane Mt. Pleasant has provided Native Americans an important role in the burgeoning field of sustainable agriculture by flawlessly fusing her knowledge of Western science and of Native traditions and agriculture.

Written by Claudia Herrera Hudson
Last changed on: 10/16/2013 1:40:15 PM

Iroquois Corn: book by Jane Mt. Pleasant Cornell University

Traditional Iroquois methods work for today's farmers from Science Daily

A Guide to the Three Sisters from the New York State Museum.

This story was made possible by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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