Eating fresh vegetables and staying healthy has become much easier for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, thanks to the abundant harvest from Choctaw Fresh Produce.
The venture began back in 2010 when the Tribe conducted a series of community meetings to identify goals and needs of the tribal members. One of the common themes of that meeting was the desire to improve overall health and to create more jobs in some of the Tribe’s more remote communities. “We applied for a grant in 2011 to start a farming program,” explained John Hendrix, director of economic development for the Tribe. “We began actual production in 2013.”
Hendricks said that the food and beverage director for the casino came to him with the idea of growing fresh produce. “The tribe already had a program where they were growing flowers for the golf course. That was really successful, so we felt growing produce would be a great idea.”
The produce company is actually comprised of five farms, spread out amongst five separate Tribal communities. The bulk of the produce is grown in 30’ x 96’ ‘high tunnels’ which allow for a more controlled growing environment. “It’s a more passive way to grow,” explained Hendrix. “There is no cooling or heating by mechanical means, we can simply roll the sides up or down to control the temperature and to protect the plants from wind. Growing produce in the tunnels prevents worries from hail damage as well as over or under-watering. We have a drip irrigation system that provides the optimal amount of moisture to the plants. We can also get them in the ground about a month earlier than open-field farming.”
Currently, there are 19 high tunnels in the tribal communities of Bogue Chitto, Conehatta, Pearl River, Red Water, and Tucker. In addition to providing fresh certified organic produce to the restaurants at the Pearl River Resort, they also provide products to nine Tribal schools, to the hospital and cafeteria at the Choctaw Health Center, and to the Diabetes Prevention Program. Produce is sold wholesale to various grocery stores in the area. To purchase from Choctaw Fresh Produce, visit their Facebook page for updates on what's available and the location of their mobile produce stand.
Teaching young people the importance of fresh produce is part of the farm’s mission. “We conduct tours for students, and allow them to actually pick produce from a plant and dip it in ranch dressing and eat it on the spot,” Hendrix said. “When they see where their food is grown, and taste fresh-picked produce, they have a better appreciation for it. “ A youth opportunity initiative includes a greenhouse program in the Tribal high school where students can learn the commercial side of farming. They work with residents on growing produce, food preservation, and healthy cooking.
It’s too early in the program to know the real effects on the overall health of the Tribal members. But already Choctaw Fresh Produce has created new jobs, including a few full-time positions and even more part-time positions during the peak picking season.