Gakwi:yo:h Farms aims to harvest 25+ acres of corn

By Tami Watt, Editor

Pictured above: Onëögä:n field in Ohi:yo’ located on Eugene’s John Sr. old farm.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic Gakwi:yo:h Farms is aiming to plant and harvest 25+ acres of corn that will encompass four sites.

Traditionally, onëögä:n or white corn has been used by the Hodinöhsö:ni’ for over a 1,000 years in ceremonies and for nutritional value. Onëögä:n part of the Three Sisters (Johegoh, life givers); corn, beans, and squash. These three plants can grow together and provide all the nutrients to sustain life.

The Seneca Nation aims to bring back this Hodinöhsö:ni’ staple to daily life while providing a safe and healthy way to interact with our community. Gakw:iyo:h Farms has found a way to bring a nutritious non-GMO, gluten-free traditional food back into our lives.  According to Michael Snyder, Director, the farm will harvest two varieties of corn at four sites including three fields on the Cattaraugus Territory (Ga’dä:gësgë:ö’) and one on the Allegany Territory (Ohi:yo’). One field across from the Cattaraugus Community Center will grow sweet corn while the three remaining fields will grow onëögä:n.

The field in Ohi:yo’ is located at Eugene John Sr.’s pre-Kinzua homestead.  John was an avid farmer before the forced removal around 1964.  This land has not been farmed for over fifty years. It holds a special place for Snyder as this was his grandfather’s property prior to the removal. Growing up, he recalls family members sharing stories about the old farm and fun times had in the warmer months along Ohi:yo’.  “The seed that we are planting is my great-grandfather Leland John’s that he got from Tyler and George Heron and kept it going.  This seed is over 100 years old and to see it come back to Allegany, in the same fields, is a good feeling for me and nya:wëh to Ed John for allowing us to use his land,” shares Snyder.

Prep work for each season includes discing, plowing, fertilizing, testing the soil for proper fertility levels and, this year, implementing a new comprehensive irrigation system with help from USDA.  The farm was able to dig up two wells to install the system. 

The fields will yield three separate harvests for each type of corn that was planted. The first harvest is in August for Green Corn ceremonies. Every year, Snyder and staff welcome the community to come pick and harvest the corn to donate for ceremonies, social events, and, unfortunately, the occasional funeral. After all the hard work is done, the farm hosts a Roasting Party for all volunteers for their time and effort. “If they put the sweat equity in, we give the volunteers whatever they ask for. Their dedication makes it easy to say yes,” says Snyder.

The other two harvests are staggered between September and October when the corn is fully mature and ready to be picked. Snyder, again, counts on the community to come aid at harvest time as onëögä:n should be hand picked to get the most from each yield. 

“We need all hands on deck. What we cannot pick, we will have to use the husker but it damages the corn  It can damage up to 30% of the corn it picks. It comes to a threshold when we have to make a choice- let the community pick it and take it or lose it to the husker,” explains Snyder.

Growing onëögä:n is labor intensive agriculture. Once the corn is hand picked, the real work begins. It needs to be braided, dried, and hung. Gakwi:yo:h Farms hosts a yearly husking bee and invites the community to join in. Members from both territories gather to braid ears of corn together by the husks which, hopefully, result in 100 – 200braids. The love, the laughter, and labor is a nostalgic nod to our aboriginal customs when women would gather to plant and harvest the fields.

Onëögä:n is a high moisture corn. It comes off the field at a 35% moisture level, it needs to be dried down to a 10% level moisture for cooking use. It is hung up in a dry facility with natural air flow to keep from molding for about four months, however, this year Snyder and crew will be utilizing a new heating unit that can dry it faster. He expects the process will take one to two weeks versus the four month period.

After it is dry enough for cooking, it needs to be processed; the hull must be removed, then boiled, ground, and packaged. Ashes or lye are used to push the hull out and the corn is washed in a traditional splint basket to aid in removal. Onëögä:n is now ready to use in mush, corn soup, corn wheels, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods. Different varieties of dried corn are used for different recipes. Ground flour is used for mush, white corn flour is used for corn bread wheels, and the dehydrated hull is used for soups and salads. Gakwi:yo:h Farms offers all three variations packaged and ready to sell.

Gakwi:yo:h Farms sends their harvest to Ganondagan to be processed for commercial packaging to sell at our Seneca Nation One Stops and The Seneca-Iroquois National Museum. The Ganondagan White Corn Project has aided the farm in processing and distributing onëögä:n over the last few years.

The Ganondagan White Corn Project was reignited in 2011 by Peter Jemison (Seneca) after the untimely death of original founders Dr. John C. Mohawk (Seneca) and wife Dr. Yvonne Buffalo from the Cattaraugus Territory. “Corn is one of those plants that cannot survive in the wild. It has to have humans, it has a reciprocal relationship,” explained Dr. Mohawk.

Snyder is pleased to announce the Seneca Nation has invested in a cannery for the farm. The cannery will allow Gakwi:yo:h Farms to process their own corn to distribute and sell. Snyder is excited to develop new products. He’s eager to test out various ways to process corn and could potentially replace wheat flour with our own white corn flour, a big step for the Seneca Nation, not only toward food sovereignty but also in taking back our health with our own traditional foods and recipes. “I appreciate the opportunity to provide a food system for the Seneca Nation. I am truly honored and grateful that the Nation has entrusted us to reestablish agriculture in our community,” shares Snyder.

A farmer’s work never ends, in the off season, staff tediously sorts seeds from the previous harvest to plant for next year.  In an effort to grow large full ears of corn, staff will sort the best seeds out by hand and grade them.  Snyder says takes one hour to sort one pound of seeds making for a long monotonous process for his dedicated team. Snyder insists everything is easier with a good team. 

Over the years, Snyder has collected seeds from Hodinöhsö:ni’ farmers, gardeners, and seed exchanges to start a bank. The farm holds various types of corn seeds yet to be planted.  Strawberry popcorn, black sweet corn, Seneca chief, are some of the strains Snyder would like to get in the ground. He envisions more land for more corn fields.

Gakwi:yo:h Farms also encourages the community to plant at home. They offer tilling services for on territory members and host a seed give-a-way in the early stages of growing season.  The farm provided seeds to fifty four members who called in. Seeds were mailed or hand delivered to homes.  A successful plant give-a-way was hosted on both territories as another means to get started at home.

Growing onëögä:n is only one of the numerous projects in development at the farm. Gakwi:yo:h Farms is home to a commercial operation maple tapping initiative, a growing bison farm, and harvests many other crops throughout the year.

For more information, please check out https://sni.org/departments/gakwiyoh-farms, the Seneca Nation Gakwi:yo:h Farms Facebook page, or call (716)532-3194.