By Michele S. Byers
On paper, the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Sussex County looks like a start-up business, but at its heart, it’s a charity with the goal of feeding, healing and sustaining members of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.
This Native American tribe historically lived in what is now northern New Jersey and southern New York.
Munsee Three Sisters is one of several new endeavors supported by the Foodshed Alliance’s affordable farmland leasing program on preserved land, known as the Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE).
“The farm is there because it’s needed,” said Michaeline Picaro, who co-founded it with the clan’s chief, Vincent Mann. “Our community needs to be a caring community, centered around healthy food and healing. This is our life, our vision.”
November is Native American Heritage Month and the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm is an inspirational example of how a New Jersey-based tribe is looking toward the future while honoring its past.
The Turtle Clan has about 5,000 members, Picaro said, and many struggle to afford necessities like food, health care, housing and heat for the winter.
The Ramapough Lenape Nation is recognized by the state of New Jersey, but not the federal government. That means it does not get the same benefits, like land and health facilities, often given to federally recognized tribes.
“We don’t have a reservation,” noted Picaro, and tribe members do not live together communally.
She and Mann, who reside in Sussex County, decided a couple of years ago that starting a farm could help them care for their people and build community.
Fate intervened in the fall of 2019 when they were driving to visit a relative. They spotted a sign for SAgE along Route 206 in Newton and knew that securing low-cost farmland could help them fulfill their vision of uplifting the Turtle Clan.
“We said great, now we can grow food for our people. That’s the way we can help,” Picaro recalled.
They qualified for 14 acres of farmland on a preserved site shared by several other new farm enterprises.
“It was a very small step, but a very large one for us,” she said.
The “Munsee” in the farm’s name is a reference to a subtribe of the Lenape. “Medicinal” stems from the belief that healthy food is medicine, nourishing the body, mind and spirit.
“The food we are producing is healing because it is pesticide-free and grown in good soil,” Picaro said.
Crops are produced using organic methods, although she and Mann are not pursuing organic certification. The “three sisters” celebrates corn, beans and squash, the three main crops of many indigenous peoples.
This past summer was Munsee Three Sisters’ second season of farming. Picaro and Mann grew a variety of vegetables and herbs and kept a flock of 50 hens whose eggs they sold.
They also got a permit to grow hemp, a crop traditionally used by Native Americans to make fiber and medicine.
Picaro is developing a line of personal care products, like body creams, using hemp and other natural ingredients. They also sell hemp oil, whose active ingredient has a number of medicinal uses.
Like many startups, Munsee Three Sisters Farm has experienced growing pains. Picaro and Mann do most of the farming themselves, with only a handful of volunteers who help out on weekends.
They don’t mind hard work, but “it was too much for the amount of people we have,” she said.
Next year should be better. They invested in a used tractor and other farming equipment, which they hope will help double their food yield next summer. And if their hemp products take off, they will hire more help on the farm. One of their longer-term goals is planting an orchard of fruit-bearing trees.
“It’s really all about affordable healing,” said Picaro, noting that many in the Turtle Clan and other communities cannot afford market prices for quality, locally grown organic products. “Why not make food and medicine affordable for all?”
To find out more about the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm, go to https://munseethreesisters.org/
To learn more about Native American Heritage Month – including Native American Heritage Day on Nov. 26 – go to https://nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov/
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org