Saturday mornings, you’ll find Joe Miller at the Farmers’ Market in Bishop, surrounded by his heirloom cucumbers, tomatoes and, earlier this summer, Carolina Cross watermelons off the vine that won him a blue ribbon at this year’s Tri-County Fair.
Miller grows his vegetables on a grand scale on the Big Pine Paiute Reservation. He’s part of an even grander plan started in 2009 as an irrigation demonstration project by Tony Karl, the utility operator on the reservation. Neither Miller nor Karl had a specific road map for their projects in the beginning. Miller learned how to construct a garden from family members, lost interest, then “a few years ago, I got interested in plant biology and started growing vegetables,” he said. “I didn’t do so well at first, but I studied how to maximize the potential.” With the help of grant funding for irrigation water holding tanks and a back hoe, Miller’s plot will double in size, from its current 5,000 square feet, by next spring.
For Karl, the demonstration project began on the corner of Blake and Harry streets with a small park. “We wanted to show people what they can do with irrigation,” he said. Tapping into the tribe’s irrigation water off Big Pine Creek, Karl created a series of small vegetable beds and a couple of ponds, as much to attract birds and toads as for their potential as holding ponds. He seeded part of the area. Between the seeds and the fertility of the riparian water, the park greened up; the vegetable beds produced tomatoes, artichokes, cucumbers and squash; and Karl started imagining more projects and the frogs, which Karl said are indicators of the health of the system, showed up.
“We used some of the grant funding to help Joe get started,” he said. “It benefits everybody. What’s left after Joe comes back from the market goes to the WIC mothers.” The harvest from the park beds ends up in the tribal office for anyone who wants fresh produce. It doesn’t last long.
Karl started a compost pile made up of chipped brush near the park site and at other locations on the reservation. “We wet it down,” he said, “throw fertilizer on it and we’ll see what happens.”
Karl’s larger goal was to get people on the reservation to start their own vegetable gardens. Roughly 300 plants were started in a greenhouse owned by Jan Baron. Karl bought a rotor tiller, tilled plots on residents’ assignments and distributed the seedlings. “We have about 12 gardens going now,” he said.
Currently Karl is working on additional grant funding from Futurefarmers and Plant Justice, two Bay Area non-profits, for more holding tanks and a larger greenhouse, roughly four times larger, to start 1,200 to 1,400 plants for distribution. “People will be eating healthier,” said Karl. “Somebody else might want to do like Joe. We could even start a farmers’ market at the park.”
Another area Karl hopes to explore is incorporating edible native plants into the community’s gardens.
Both Karl and Miller are looking toward sustainability for the tribe. Karl is looking into adding bee colonies and developing vermiculture. There’s already a Big Pine cycle going at Miller’s garden. Hay grown up the road at Joe Steward’s ranch comes back to Miller in the form of horse manure from local horse owners. Once his garden plants have produced and died off, they go into his compost pile to feed next year’s vegetables. He’s also experimenting with crops, planting hops for use in soups, as a rice substitute or used as an herb.
Miller’s experience at the Bishop Farmers’ Market, to a certain extent, colors his approach to next year’s garden. “I’m doing OK at the market,” he said. “I’m learning about trends. At first, it was mostly just staple stuff, beans, tomatoes. The trends are toward heirloom varieties of squash and tomatoes.” He’s growing purple cherry tomatoes, yellow and red pear tomatoes not always available in the grocery store.
“The people at the market let you know how much they appreciate fresh vegetables,” said Miller. “You see a lot of the same people; I’ve had people tell me, ‘Thanks for what you’re doing and bringing it to the market.’
“Next year, I’ll do things a little differently. I’ll plant quantities determined by what sells more, more of what’s trending and smaller amounts of just what I want to eat. My crookneck squash do great at market.” They also won Miller a second blue ribbon at this year’s county fair.