Editor’s Note: This piece is part of New Jersey communities, a new series intended to highlight, present and cover communities underserved by mainstream media such as NJ.com.
For the owners of the 14-acre Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Newton, farming is more than just a means of making a profit, it is a means of survival.
“This is what we need to do to save the lives of our people,” said Vincent Mann, head of the Ramapough Lenape Nation Turtle Clan and co-founder of the farm.
Mann and Michaeline Picaro, a senior member of the Turtle Clan, co-created the for-profit farm in 2019 to address food insecurity in their community, they said. But, they have much bigger projects in the works.
Through growing cash crops, the couple hope the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm will serve as a sustainable source of income for their nonprofit, the Ramapough Culture and Land Foundation. Working in partnership, these two companies hope to provide the Turtle Clan community with opportunities for food, healing and justice.
The head of the turtle clan, Vincent Mann, owns a hemp plant at the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Chickens of different varieties are raised on the farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The Ramapough Lenape Nation is one of the Native American tribes recognized by the State of New Jersey whose members live in the counties of northern New Jersey, as well as around New York. It suffers from high rates of poverty, much like other indigenous communities across the country. But the Turtle Clan also has a unique threat, having lived for the past 57 years on a Superfund site, a federal designation for areas that have suffered severe pollution.
Between 1967 and 1971, the Ford Motor Company dumped industrial waste from its neighboring plant in the Ringwood Mines area, where many Ramapough families live. It was taken off the Superfund list in 1994, but after an investigation by The Record newspaper in 2005, the US Environmental Protection Agency re-listed the site.
To this day, the EPA is still overseeing a multi-million dollar remediation and cleanup of the site, funded primarily by Ford and the Borough of Ringwood.
In the years since dumping, residents have reported an increase in the incidence of asthma, cancer, diabetes, miscarriages and skin conditions, according to a study conducted by New York University . Picaro, who lives on Lake Lenape, said she had seen “young and old” get sick.
“It’s traumatic,” she said.
The leader of the turtle clan, Vincent Mann, stands among the growing hemp plants at the Three Sisters of Munsee Medicinal Farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Morning fog lingers in a field at the entrance to the Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Munsee on September 13, 2021. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Although the EPA has said the area no longer has “unacceptable” levels of exposure to contaminants for people, it says continued clean-up is “necessary to protect public health or welfare. or the environment against actual or threatened releases of hazardous substances into the environment. . “
The health implications weren’t the only concerns for members of the Turtle Clan, who say their way of life, including hunting, planting and gathering, has been shattered by the pollution. Given the risk of contamination, the Turtle Clan now relies heavily on statewide food distribution programs, which typically struggle with nutritional quality, according to a recent study.
“This is one of the reasons we wanted to start this farm,” Picaro said. “We just thought, at the very least, we can provide healthy food to people to help them heal.”
Starting the farm
It was a cool day in late fall 2019 when Picaro was driving on the US 206 in Newton and spotted a small sign announcing acres of available farmland. She and Mann searched in vain for land to rent.
When she saw the plot in Newton, Picaro stopped and wrote down the number on the sign. She learned that the land was leased by the Foodshed Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE), a program “designed to make preserved farmland accessible to farmers with affordable long-term leases,” according to its website.
It was encouraging, but what really sealed the deal for Picaro was learning that the town of Newton was once inhabited by natives, as historical field studies and archaeological records indicate.
“So we are back on the land on which our ancestors worked, lived, breathed and died,” Picaro said.
She and Mann jumped at the chance to rent the farm to Newton, using their personal savings to buy farming equipment. It was arguably a big risk for the pair to go after a commercial farming venture, but Picaro doesn’t think of it that way.
“It could be a risk. Or it’s about working with the infrastructure you have to make your vision a reality, ”she said.
Sunflowers bloom on the farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Register for the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Newton. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The company name, Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm, is a nod to three things: the Munsee, a sub-tribe of the Lenapes; the three sisters, nickname for the three main agricultural crops of various indigenous peoples (corn, beans and squash); and the medicinal power of foods and herbs.
“When people come here we want them to feel like they are stepping into a medicine cabinet for the mind, body and soul,” Picaro said.
In the farm’s first year, Picaro and Mann began cultivating 9 of the farm’s 14 acres, planting the three sisters, as well as radishes and potatoes. They also bought chickens and started selling farm-fresh eggs. After receiving a permit from the state, the farm can also begin growing hemp, a plant long used by Native Americans to make products like cloth and soap. Most of the work is done by Picaro and Mann, with occasional help from volunteers on weekends. It involves a lot of long hours and late days, but Mann said he didn’t mind.
“Our people have suffered tremendously and we want to change that for future generations,” said Mann, who has been on a mission to defend his community since 2008.
He hopes to start distributing a portion of the crops grown on the farm to the Turtle Clan community every two weeks next year. Supply permitting, donations will also be sent to underserved areas of Newark, Newton, Passaic and Paterson.
Mann hopes that in addition to being able to provide food for the Turtle Clan, the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm will serve as a source of income for the community.
“Anything we can do to help our community we will try to do,” he said.
Turtle clan leader Vincent Mann prepares to throw a stone for the farm dogs Sadie, left, and Blueberry. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Co-founders of the farm Vincent Mann and Michaeline Vicaro. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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