Use soil health to feed your neighbors

A Milpa Garden can bring much-needed fresh food to those in need

The irony of food insecurity in rural America is not lost on Keith Berns. 

While the nation’s mid-section provides massive amounts of corn, wheat, soybeans, beef, and dairy, nearly 13% of the Corn Belt struggles with hunger. That’s according to the advocacy group Feeding America. In Berns’ home state of Nebraska, 12% of its citizens deal with hunger each day.

That’s one reason why Green Cover Seed – the firm that Keith owns with his brother, Brian, near Bladen, Nebraska – encourages farmers to plant an acre of cropland to growing vegetables and fruits. Green Cover Seed is even offering a free acre’s worth of seed for this purpose. The goal is to provide food for local food banks, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and other areas that need fresh produce. It’s a program Berns calls a Milpa Garden, based on a meso-American term from the book, 1491. Influenced by the Three Sisters concept of growing food – that corn, beans, and squash grown together complement each other. A Milpa Garden is also good for the soil.

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The Milpa Garden mix Green Cover offers contains nearly 50 different species of seeds, including leaf vegetables, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins, melons, beets, beans, and brassicas.

“It’s kind of the Three Sisters concept on steroids because it’s much more than those three crops,” he says. 

And, the Milpa Garden has a positive effect on local communities. Berns encourages farmers to offer produce to organizations who can use it. 

“We will donate up to 1 acre of Milpa seed to anyone who gives a promise and has a plan to donate this to a local food bank or other community group,” he says. 

Blessed bounty

Sedgwick, Kansas, farmer Ryan Speer and his wife, Jennifer, have planted a Milpa Garden for three years. Jennifer is a board member of the Harvey County, Kansas, Food and Farm Council, which sought ways to help local organizations get access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The Speers have harvested tons of produce, giving it not only to the Food and Farm Council, but to the Salvation Army, women’s shelters, and employees of the Newton, Kansas, hospital where Jennifer works. 

“Jennifer provides recipes on how to fix meals with these vegetables,” Ryan says. “You get generations away from people knowing how to cook, so those recipes are needed.” 

Harvesting the bounty is rewarding, but hard work. 

“We pick three times a week, two hours per night,” he says. “We put the food in laundry baskets and fill five to six laundry baskets full of vegetables every few days.” 

The Speers grow a few rows of sweet corn separately in a cornfield, and add those ears to the baskets, he adds.

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While Jennifer does most of the food delivery, Ryan tagged along on one visit. The reception he received made a lasting impression.

“To see the joy that people had, when they haven’t had fresh vegetables for a long time, was so rewarding,” he recalls. “Seeing how much they appreciated it, knowing we’re doing a good thing, makes the work worthwhile.” 

This year, Speer says community groups have offered to help harvest the crop. That brings about more community support and lessens the burden on the Speer family, he adds.

“The people who do it and have done a good job of reaching out to the communities are very fulfilled,” he says. “It’s a sizeable donation, but if we can donate the seed, and farmers invest their land and time, we can impact a wide area.”

That’s the vision Berns had when he began offering the Milpa Garden mix a few years ago. The amount of seed Green Cover has given away has grown from just a few acres worth in 2017 to nearly 320 acres worth of seed in 2020. 

Berns adds that Milpa Gardens allows consumers to get to know farmers, and have a better understanding of where food comes from. Plus, locally grown food just tastes better.

How to grow it

Speer plants his Milpa Garden in an edge of a center pivot corner, so the plot gets rain when it needs it. The whole field has a standing cover crop of cereal rye. After the Milpa Garden is planted (and the rest of the field to soybeans) and prior to crop emergence, the whole field is sprayed with glyphosate to kill the rye. 

“That’s all it gets the rest of the year,” he says. No fertilizer, no insecticides. He was told squash bugs would decimate the garden, but they have not been a problem at all. “With the cover crop, there are no squash bugs. It’s amazing how it takes care of itself,” he says. 

Speer notes that in past year, soybeans around the Milpa Garden have flourished. “Those beans had twice as many pods. I think it was due to bees pollinating the garden,” he explains. “It’s not a big enough area to see on the yield monitor, but it’s interesting.”

Tips to make your Milpa Garden thrive

Speer has a few years of experience to draw from. Here are some of his tips:

  • Make sure you have a place to take your Milpa Garden produce before you plant it. Your local food bank, church, Salvation Army, homeless shelter, or women’s shelter are good places to start.
  • Wait until the soil temperature is 60°F. to plant. Planting the Milpa Garden after you’re finished with corn planting is ideal. The Green Cover Milpa Mix can be planted from May to July, according to Berns.
  • Use a grain drill, and set it for 25 pounds per acre. Plant your plot twice, the second pass at an angle to the first. 
  • Plant ¾ of an inch deep.
  • Expect the squash, cucumbers, and pumpkins to thrive; the rest of the blend will be hit-and-miss. Pumpkins will be ready later in the season.
  • Provide recipe cards with ideas on how to use the crops. Many folks have forgotten how to use squash and zucchini.
  • Go light on the weeding, as it will be overwhelming. If you can water the garden, your odds of success will be much greater.
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