Ecolution #5: Food Sovereignty & Harvest Nation

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Top: Denise Pieratos, Chief Executive Officer; Dani Pieratos, President, Sales & Marketing Director; Bottom: Tracey Dagen, Chief Operations Officer, Farm Production Manager; Nikki Love, Treasurer

A few years ago, while working in New York City, Denise Pieratos worked on a project for the History Channel’s “Cities of the Future” competition — what the infrastructure of sustainable food production might look like in 100 years. From research on fossil fuel projections, the MIT graduate and architect of 15 years recognized the looming crisis of depleted oil reserves and it worried her. With dependence on food trucked and flown in from around the world, how would her Bois Forte Band of Chippewa family and neighbors from northern Minnesota survive?

About a billion dollars’ worth of food in the Western Lake Superior region is brought in annually. Only a million dollars of food is produced in the area. Pieratos returned to Minnesota and got to work on a plan with her two daughters and sister.

The result is Harvest Nation aeroponic farming, produced indoors without the use of soil. Climate, geography, limited finances, and fossil fuel-reliance does not limit the ability to grow heirloom vegetables and fruits — grown from seeds that come from a legacy of unaltered plants.

When fully funded, nutrient-infused water and full-spectrum light bulbs will grow food in the middle of winter, potentially in the remains of the large Soudan mining space nearby in Tower, Minnesota. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) sales will support the work while offering healthy foods in the area year-round. The money remains local to support Iron Range economy. The goal is to replicate the farms globally in the future.

The Nature of Moving From Individual to Community

Dani Pieratos is one of the four women family members leading the Harvest Nation mission. Here is her take on the process of developing the company

My mother got into motion on figuring out how aeroponic farming would enable us to grow food at home — as a Bear clan we love our berries and wanted to know we could eat strawberries in the winter even if the food distribution system failed. It was not long before she realized this new system should not simply be for growing food at home for subsistence. 

Being from an Indigenous community, our way of life is to share food — it is part of our survival story.

She started thinking bigger than household use — creating a whole farm concept in our community. It is incredible trying to keep up with her. She’s a tech whiz. She is the mastermind behind the concept that aeroponics can grow anything. 

Once we have our space, we’ll be growing the highest in-demand fruits and vegetables. Heirloom tomatoes. Black chickpeas from Turkey. Blue potatoes, red potatoes. Greens rotated in shares. Romaine, spinach, leafy lettuce. Bulb onions, carrots, green beans, cherry tomatoes. Herbs: cilantro, sage, basil. It takes 2-3 years for fruit seeds to reach full maturation. 

We are working with a professor in Duluth who is from Trinidad — the university is the largest holder of seeds in cacao varieties.
We could have 40 crops in the first farm, but we will focus on 12-15 items in rotation for our community-supported agriculture yields. 

What Is the Food Sovereignty Movement?

Dani Pieratos writes at Blandin Foundation

1. Affordable access to cultural appropriate and health food
“I desperately need and want to have food around that feeds my spirit and my soul, like wild rice and berries. I need the ability to engage in the social activities surrounding my traditional foods to maintain my identity as an Anishinaabe Ikwe (Indigenous Woman) and connection to my people, my heritage. That’s where I draw strength.”

2. Local Food Production and Control of Food System
“We are the ones ingesting the food and having to live with the consequences of however the food system is designed. The food system should be directly accountable and responsive to the desires and needs of the people it serves. If the food system is not meeting the goals, as in, providing for the nutritional and social needs of a community, they should be able to provide input and feedback for improvements.”

3. Education & Awareness
“Growing up, I don’t think I had a clear, conscious thought about where food actually came from. I didn’t think to question the mechanisms for production or delivery. This changed when I became a mother. I grew up on the heftier side, and packed on the pounds living a not-so-healthy lifestyle. As a mom, I didn’t want my kids to suffer the same fate as I did. We are making changes to eat better now, reversing the curse of being passive consumers of foods like mac & cheese, hot dogs, white breads and pastas, chips and soda.”

4. Environmental Practice“What use are the education and food system changes in support of community wellbeing if the land and the water around us is polluted and unable to maintain life into the future?”

Next week: How aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics work

When Big Is Not Better

Why West Virginia pharmacies delivered COVID-19 vaccines faster
(The Conversation)
“Nationwide, each CVS and Walgreens pharmacy on average planned to serve about 25 nursing homes. West Virginia chose to mobilize independent and chain pharmacies alike, rather than relying just on CVS and Walgreens — each nursing home on average is served by more than one pharmacy.”

Why factory farm meat is dangerous — with solutions
“I’m not sure we’ve had a better chance than this to have the eyes of the world on the way we’re using animals in our food system and the risk that puts to us as a species.”

Minnesota pushes to help smaller processing plants
In the wake of the problems caused by the processing plant closures last year, one idea has become increasingly popular: expanding the number and size of smaller meat processing operations to reduce the state’s reliance on big plants, particularly in the hog industry — 10 plants take roughly 85 percent of the pigs raised in Minnesota today. 

Related Resources

“Meet the Disruptors” Q&A with Denise Pieratos
“The food industry has so altered the very nature of food with its high salt, fat, sugar, and preservative additives that bodies don’t recognize the danger they represent and try to process them as if they were the sparing wonders of a hunter/gatherer existence.

The industry didn’t regulate itself to ask if this is right. Instead, it targeted the highest profitability based on food addiction and convenience. The result is alarming increases in diabetes, heart disease and compromised immunity.

“Disruption to improve the human condition is always positive.”
Harvest Nation website

“Healthy Eating & Living on the Iron Range and Bois Forte Reservations

A 2019 research study, supported by Blandin Foundation, allowed Harvest Nation to gather extensive findings about regional struggles to maintain a healthy lifestyle; most popular fruits and vegetables, including costs and access; and payment and delivery preferences for community-supported agriculture.

Harvest Nation is one of 13 companies nationwide (out of 200 submissions) that made it to the final round of this month’s annual Million-Dollar Challenge sponsored by MEDA, which supports entrepreneurs of color.

Coming: Details from Harvest Nation’s Dani Pieratos