By: Jack Cheston
In recent history, farming has lost a certain authenticity in favor of a new, industrialized form. Nick Leibowitz ’18, however, has found an avenue to rediscover the artistry of agriculture.
For the past two years he has grown corn, beans and squash — known as the “three sisters” of Native American agriculture — following the instructions of a 19th-century primary source document entitled Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden.
The project started when Leibowitz, who has lived on the Kenyon Farm since his sophomore year, was brainstorming ways to grow corn to feed the Farm’s chickens. After taking Assistant Professor of History Patrick Bottiger’s course entitled “Corn, Farming and the Roots of America,” he found inspiration in corn’s impact on culture.
“The course provide[d] the context to the project,” Leibowitz said. “It showed how this way of growing corn is different to the way we generally grow it today. But it also showed how corn is important to Native cultures and to us, and how its importance has changed over thousands of years.”
Leibowitz initially followed the instructions of a paper published by Cornell’s agriculture department on heritage farming, but the plants didn’t take off and the project failed under these directions. Through his history course, Leibowitz came upon Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa woman who lived during the 18th century and was known for maintaining traditional Hidatsa practices, especially in gardening and preparing food.
Her book detailed the exact methods the Hidatsa people used to grow the three sisters, as well as the deeper connections between Hidatsa culture and their gardens.
It wasn’t until Leibowitz found these firsthand accounts of the traditional Hidatsa methods that things started to go well. “The book really drilled home the attentiveness and care it requires to grow these plants,” he said. “Because it is manual, we don’t have machines and chemicals like they do across the road. It’s not mass-produced.”
Now, the corn, beans and squash are flourishing.
These crops, and the way the Hidatsa people grew them, were at the cultural apex of the community, holding a spiritual importance. In reading the book, Leibowitz said, “The connection the Hidatsa people felt to the corn really can be felt.”
Indeed, Buffalo Bird Woman’s book describes the corn as “possessing all this magic power.” The actual methods Buffalo Bird Woman describes are sacred and cherished by the Hidatsa people, as the symbiotic relationship this method employs between the three sisters was perfected over hundreds of years.
The corn depletes the soil of nitrogen, while the beans, which vine up the corn stalk, replenish it. Together, they elongate the lifespan of the fields. Without this replenishing of nitrogen, the fields would become barren after a few seasons.
The squash acts as a cover crop, weaving through the rows of corn stalks and drastically cutting down on weeding. The crops (corn especially) provide nutrition for people and their animals, but they are nothing without the human labor to keep them up.
“Corn cannot grow without human intervention,” Leibowitz said. “You have to baby it.”
Although reading Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden taught Leibowitz about symbiotic forms of farming, perhaps what he has taken most from this project is the connection between endeavors inside and outside the classroom. “Learning about something in the classroom is abstract,” he said. “You can envision what something is like, but you can’t even feel one-tenth of what it actually is like until you do it.”
Through this project, Leibowitz has gained a greater understanding not only for all that goes into producing the food we eat, but also for the pivotal role that corn as a crop played and continues to play in both Native American and Western culture. A history major and a classics minor, he found that literally getting your hands dirty provides a more holistic meaning to your educational experience.
“There are countless ways to integrate what you learn inside the classroom with what you do outside of the classroom,” he said. “You just have to think outside the box.”