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Ohelaku Corn Growers Co-Op plows through rough growing season

It was a difficult season for the Oneida corn growers co-op Ohe∙láku – Among the Cornstalks according to member Becky Webster.

“It was a wet season that really effected our crops this year,” she said.

The group planted white corn and blue calico corn – called Hegowa, in two separate fields.

“It’s a kind of Iroquois corn, but we didn’t have as much of it, but we still didn’t expect to get as little as we got out of that field. And that’s normally a field that’s a really good producer,” she said. “In our other field, we planted white corn there and again it just didn’t produce hardly anything. Half of the whole field had nothing on it. It was not very good.”

And then came the racoons.

“There was a lot of racoon damage in one of the fields. You could just see when you’re picking, all of a sudden there’s a big clearing in there. They clearly had a party in there. They knocked stalks down, they just laid right there and ate the corn,” she said.

Webster estimates this year’s corn harvest was about an eighth of the previous year.  However, she is focused on the positive.

“We’re not discouraged at all, we know that we have a lot to learn, and the corn is just going to help carry us through that along with her other sisters they’re going to help us in so many ways other than to just eat the food. It teaches us things, it forces us to learn things,” she said. “One of the best things that we can take from this year is whatever seeds we can save from our gardens are going to be seeds that will bring us forward and help us survive climate change, because they are some really strong seeds,” she said.

Webster believes her family’s garden plot fared a little better.

“We planted five varieties of corn, three varieties of squash, and 11 varieties of beans. And we also had some sunflowers, too,” she said. “We had a very wet spring, (the garden) was under water for four days, so we were really worried that it would be a total – just gone, all the seeds would have rotted and molded, but it didn’t. That garden actually produced quite a bit.”

Because of the late start, some of her corn didn’t have a chance to mature past the green corn stage.

“That forced us to have to learn different ways to cook the corn. So we had to cook it at a green corn stage, and we’ve done it here and there before, but not on a scale that we had to do it this time, so we were grilling, and cutting, and dehydrating a whole lot of green corn this year. That was something that we were forced to learn which is probably a good thing, because we have another skill set and another way to eat our food,” she said.

The Webster family and the co-op are thinking about doing three sisters mounds next year. It’s a pre-Columbian style of planting corn, beans and squash together in mounds so the plants support each other.

“We’re going to make the mounds this fall, and then hopefully in the spring, even if it’s wet, the mounds should be fine to plant in,” she said.

Along with traditional growing techniques, Ohe∙láku members are working with traditional methods of bartering for goods and service rather than selling produce for money.

“We do a lot of trades, we’ve traded for salmon, bison, honey, maple syrup, we’ve even had the girls’ hair done, we’ve had people help with the roof, we’ve had someone come over and give us singing lessons, it didn’t help me much,” said Webster. “It’s easy to put a dollar amount on something and understand it that way, but when you say I’m not going to sell it, but I’ll trade it makes you really stop and think about what you’re doing and the work that went into what you’re asking for and the work that goes into what you’re offering. You get more of connection with what it is that you’re dealing with if you don’t put a monetary value on it.”