Native American growers have long understood the benefits that decaying fish bring to soil. They’ve traditionally buried fish under mounds of soil and planted the “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash – atop those mounds. The technique is well-known to Laura Manthe, the coordinator for the Oneida White Corn Growers Group in Wisconsin. She’s working with the group to grow an heirloom variety of Iroquois white corn. The group was curious about updating traditional fertilizer practices. Their new approach is to use fish emulsion to fertilize white corn, which is part of the Oneida group’s heritage.

“We are Haudenosaunee, or the ‘Original People,’ and the corn is part of us,” Manthe said. “We selected fish emulsion to have the benefits of the fertilizer without the physical task of burying thousands of fish on three acres of land.”

The group recently was awarded a $17,637 farmer-rancher grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. The group and several backyard growers sought to expand their cultural knowledge about white corn as well as to learn how to use fish emulsion as fertilizer.

They met with Val Dantoin, an organic-agriculture instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. He shared information about soil health and helped the growers take soil tests to determine nutrient deficiencies. Some of those deficiencies could be addressed with fish emulsion.

Making fish emulsion involves cooking byproducts of cleaned fish at temperatures in excess of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. The process also involves filtering and stabilizing with acid the emulsion. It’s an odoriferous process. So the group chose to purchase fish emulsion, Manthe said. Then they fabricated spray equipment and pooled enough white-corn seed to plant 3.5 acres. Planting day began with a traditional ceremony. As the growers planted the corn, children picked rocks, planted squash seed on the edges of the field, pulled weeds and sang along to a planting-songs CD that Manthe had acquired from the Oneida Cultural Heritage Department.

“We played the songs on a boom box and sang along as we planted,” Manthe said. “The songs are as old as the seeds and are part of our culture.”

Inclement weather and persistent raccoons damaged the crop during the course of the project. But the growers were convinced the fish emulsion was a determining factor in stalk health and ear size. Becky Webster, one of the growers, said she was amazed at the difference between the sprayed and unsprayed corn.

“They had side-by-side corn plants that were sprayed and unsprayed,” Manthe said. “The sprayed corn’s stalks were tall and dark-green with huge ears on them. The plants that weren’t sprayed were spindly light-green and had small skinny ears that didn’t produce any corn.”

When the corn’s moisture content reached 35 percent it was time to harvest. As part of the harvest, the grower group hosted an event called “Braiding the Sacred.” They hand-harvested the corn and shucked each ear to three husks each. Then they braided the corn, using 65 ears to make each braid. They made 250 braids, weighing about 20 pounds each, and hung them to dry.

Native Americans from the Great Lakes region attended the event to learn about harvesting white corn and to better understand their spiritual connection to the crop. Once the harvested corn reached 11 percent moisture, the braids were divided among the growers. The growers could take them home to shell. The growers reserved some of the crop for the following spring planting. They also donated some to the community to prepare for funeral meals.

“We felt that was the best way to share our harvest and fulfill our responsibility to each other,” Manthe said.

Each member of the grower group was allowed to invite one person to the group to increase the community’s understanding of white corn. Manthe also created two Facebook pages, one for the growers and another to share the story of the white-corn project with the community.

“I was able to spend more time with my family and participate in community building,” said Eliza Skenandore, one of the growers. “I did this for my 3-year-old son. He knows where the field is and wanted to visit it every time we drove near it. And I was able to share cultural knowledge with the group and see our heritage come alive.”

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Marie Flanagan is the communications specialist for North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grants and education program that promotes profitability, natural-resource stewardship, and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and their communities.