Cherokee Nation citizens partner with Clemson University to research food and fiber crop grown at the historic American Indian sites at Clemson
Native Health Matters Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, are partnering with researchers at Clemson University to grow and analyze varieties of grain/fiber industrial hemp.
Clemson University Experimental Station is located on the site of an historic former Cherokee settlement in upstate South Carolina. Other hemp growing sites are on Cherokee tribal lands in eastern Oklahoma.
Industrial hemp seeds imported from Italy labeled “cannabis sativa” were seized and then released by U.S. customs agents in June with assistance from a national seed trade association. Crops are now safely planted and thriving in South Carolina and Oklahoma.
Agricultural researchers will analyze the genomic strains of multiple hemp varieties, including heirloom Italian cultivars dating back to the 1600s. Research includes seeding rates, fertility rates and timing, genetic DNA mapping and insect, disease and weed pressures as well as varietal development and harvesting and storage.
Researching industrial hemp advances the agricultural potential of hemp as a locally grown commodity crop in Indian Country that can help native farmers expand food sovereignty.
Native Health Matters Foundation(NHMF), a non-profit education and agricultural foundation run by Cherokee tribal citizens is advancing scientific understanding of hemp grown for fiber and seed, introducing an ancient plant to historic Cherokee agricultural sites to help build food sovereignty in Indian Country.
Nine varieties of industrial hemp are growing this summer through a partnership with Clemson University in South Carolina on historic land that was formerly the site of Cherokee agricultural settlements in the 1600s and 1700s.
In eastern Oklahoma, on the Cherokee reservation near Stillwell, the Cherry Tree headquarters of Native Health Matters Foundation, Cherokee farmers are pioneering fiber and seed hemp agriculture in the region after 80 years and plan to continue this work in 2021 on acreage in South Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
“We’re looking for ways to develop sustainable agricultural and financial sovereignty for native farmers with nutritious products grown locally,” said research farmer Tim Houseberg, vice president of Native Health Matters Foundation and a citizen of the Cherokee tribe. Native Health Matters Foundation also sponsored the start of pioneering agronomic studies of hemp with University of Arkansas’s Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Division.
But one of this year’s major projects was almost stopped in its tracks by U.S. customs agents in June.
Hemp, a non-intoxicating cannabis cousin of marijuana, was outlawed in the United States for decades until it was legalized in the 2014 and 2018 USDA Farm Bills.
Agents from the Department of Homeland Security at the port authority in Dayton, Ohio, on June 10 seized a shipment of Italian heirloom hemp seed labeling the packages as “marijuana seeds.” The seeds, imported via Canada, were accompanied by the proper paperwork, including a phytosanitary certificate identifying them as “cannabis sativa.”
Luckily, advocates from the American Seed Trade Association intervened, and the hostage hemp seeds were released.
“We were glad to help, and it’s something we do quite regularly on behalf of our members,” Bethany Shively of the seed association said. The group communicates with government agencies to help explain USDA requirements for the movement of seeds in and out of the United States, Shively said.
With the project back on track, hemp seeds were planted at the Clemson Experimental Station student organic farm under the lead of Emerging Crops Program Coordinator Kelly Flynn.
“We’re looking at what varieties grow well in the southeast and what are those specific varieties good for,” Flynn said. “We’ll analyze the seed and fiber on each of the varieties we’re growing.”
Most U.S. farmers have been growing hemp for cannabidiol (CBD). Research on growing hemp for grain and fiber in the United States has a long way to go, Flynn said. Canadian farmers have been growing hemp for grain and fiber since the 1990s.
Research will include seeding rates; fertility rates and timing; genetic DNA mapping and insect, disease and weed pressures as well as varietal development and harvesting and storage.
Hemp is an ancient plant filled with potential for the future. Hemp fibers were used for centuries in textiles such as canvas and rope and for papermaking. Hemp hurd can be used in bio-based composites and resins and combined with lime in a construction material called hempcrete. The plant’s carbon sequestration and toxin absorption make it useful to clean up soils in phytoremediation efforts.
In addition, hemp seed is highly nutritious and provides all the amino acids of a complete protein source; Edestin protein in hempseed is of particular interest. Pressed seed oil can be used for cooking or even biofuels.
“We have an opportunity to bring a new sustainable product into the system that could replace some of the existing ecologically harmful processes,” Flynn said.
Clemson research will bring farmers, processors and manufacturers together to understand the supply chain and, “make sure the farmers are profiting and not being left out of conversation,” Flynn said.
The Clemson site in northwestern South Carolina is of special importance to Cherokee history, Oklahoma’s Houseberg said.
The Esseneca burial mound, a former Cherokee settlement on the Keowee River, is located on Clemson property.
In the region, farming ancestors of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians raised the “three sisters” crops: flint corn, squash and beans, along with ramps, potatoes and hickory and chestnuts, said Karen Hall, who built the Cherokee Worldview Garden on the Clemson campus’s South Carolina Botanical Garden. Their diets also consisted of spring greens and medicinal plants that had to be carefully prepared such as Solomon’s Seal, coneflowers, pokeweed, lambs quarters and Yaupon holly, or ‘black drink’ which was “a major source of caffeine, grown and traded by the Cherokees,” Hall said.
Esseneca was destroyed by colonial soldiers in 1776 and many of the natives in the area were forcibly relocated west after the 1830 Indian Removal Act in an episode known as the Trail of Tears. The property later became a plantation owned by U.S. Vice President John Calhoun, where enslaved people cultivated rice and cotton.
Bringing Cherokee hemp back to Clemson is symbolic, said Houseberg, as a way to return agricultural autonomy to native people for better nutrition and local food production.
Meanwhile, in eastern Oklahoma and nearby Arkansas, Houseberg’s team is growing a handful of other cultivars, including several varieties of the Italian heirloom hemp rescued from U.S. Customs.
The Carmagnola seeds have a pedigree dating back to Italian hemp growers in 18th Century Turin. Italian hemp textiles were world-famous until the introduction of petroleum-based fibers in the 1950s.
“Italy has a long history in growing hemp,” said Andrea Schiavi of U.S.-based Schiavi Seeds. During the 19thCentury and early 1900s, U.S. farmers in Wisconsin and Kentucky imported landrace Italian Carmagnola, Bolognese and Napolitano hemp seeds for fiber crops to sell to the U.S. Navy for rope, sails and bags, Schiavi said.
“Carmagnola is a fantastic variety for fiber production, but also for CBD yield. In ideal conditions the crop can grow up to 14 feet tall and generate six tons of fiber per acre,” Schiavi said.
As part of a multi-national University Hemp study to analyze specific cultivar performance by crop regions, Cherokee citizens and partner regional growers will be producing fibers, grain and seeds from the European and Canadian cultivars. They are currently marketing seed to farmers through a certified seed company subsidiary, Cherokee Genetics Co. They also plan to bring the crop harvest products and byproducts back into Indian Country to begin research and development in how to best utilize these in ways both traditional and innovative.
Tribal communities have a special relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hemp program, allowing tribes to create their own hemp production plans which may be more flexible than plans determined by state departments of agriculture.
Because U.S. hemp production is so new, the Native Health Matters team hopes to build opportunities for native farmers to gain a competitive advantage and boost food sovereignty.
“Having access to the right genetics is critical to the success of farmers who are interested in hemp. Having purchased nonperforming seeds and clones in the past few seasons, this relationship is very important to help insure American Indian farmers have access to planting seeds that are proven to be both compliant and return high yields,” Houseberg said.
“Our partnerships and experience allow us to tailor programs to the crops our customers grow, which helps them build sustainable agriculture,” said Andrew Oberhoulser, a Native Health Matters board member.
With hemp, everything old is new again, and Native Health Matters Foundation wants to make sure native farmers have the best tools and research to succeed growing hemp for grain and fiber, said Houseberg.
“The goal is to help native farmers produce culturally appropriate foods through ecologically sustainable methods for nutrition and health of local communities,” he said.
About Native Health Matters: Native Health Matters, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in Cherry Tree near Stilwell, Okla., is a community development incubator for sustainable health, wellness, education, agricultural and financial sovereignty for Native American communities, minorities, and people of all ages.
About Clemson Experimental Station: The Clemson Student Organic Farm provides opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students participating in projects and farm research in sustainable agriculture.