Saving Seeds for Food Sovereignty in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula - American Farmland Trust

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Saving Seeds for Food Sovereignty in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula 

Culturally important and climate-adapted seeds saved for food sovereignty and resilience

In Northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Dani Fegan of Three Dogs Seed Farm is saving culturally important and climate-adapted seeds of foods, plants, and medicines for her community’s food sovereignty and security. 

Three Dogs Seed Farm Saves Seeds for Food Sovereinty
Dani Fegan (right) and her husband Brian (left) are the primary growers at Three Dogs Seed Farm. They are pictured here with their farm pups Louie (miniature dachshund) and Reo (a beagle/black lab mix).

A new farmer, she purchased her 20-acre Michigan seed saving farm in 2019 with her husband Brian about a mile and a half from her home. She grows plants for seedkeeping on about three acres, and has six acres of mixed maple, balsam poplar, and aspen forest on the property. 

“I get a kick out of people asking me if I’m a real farmer,” Dani admits. “I’m not a conventional corn farmer, by any means. But I like talking to people about our farm and how we’re doing things a bit differently around here than large-scale farmers today.” 

Appreciating Food Sovereignty 

It was important for Dani to focus on saving seeds that relate to her heritage. 

“As an Anishinaabekwe, as well as German, Irish, and Finnish, I have northern roots,” Dani says. “Anishinaabek (Ojibwe for Anishinaabe people) are growers, gatherers, hunters, and fishers. Being able to grow crops is one part of food sovereignty, but having those multiple layers is important too. Growing our own food. Gathering our own food. Hunting and fishing for our own food. That’s what builds resilience, and it’s fun to be one part of all that with seed saving.” 

Dani is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, an Anishinaabe tribe in the Upper Great Lakes region. She is quick to mention there are other tribes and tribal organizations, as well as small market farmers in Northern Michigan, who are growing these culturally important and Indigenous seeds, as well as seeds adapted to northern climates. 

various squash varieties
Three Dogs Seed Farm saves seeds for food sovereignty.

“But it’s mainly to feed their own communities or for selling at the market,” she explains. “There isn’t a place I can go that is focused on seed saving or seed production in the Upper Peninsula. What is encouraging is that many organizations are taking up seedkeeping, where they can. But their focus is more on making a living or feeding themselves with this food, so their priorities are understandably different.” 

Requirements for seedkeeping can be strict, especially when it comes to isolating different varieties of crops.  

“It literally takes space,” Dani says. “We might not be growing on all 20 acres, but having 20 acres allows us to spread crops out so we can maintain true-to-type varieties. Other farms may be focusing on producing the most nutritious food or medicine for their communities. Our focus is on producing seeds to share. Our filet beans are literally turning to dry beans on the vine intentionally. We don’t sell our beans during prime eating season; we grow seeds that allow others to grow the beans.” 

When you ask Dani why protecting seeds is so valuable before they disappear, she thinks about corn or mandaamin– the Ojibwe term for corn. 

Bear Island Flint Corn
Bear Island Flint Corn grown at Three Dogs Seed Farm.

Families and communities across the Americas have taken care of an amazing diversity of corn for a long time, but most of us grew up eating the same sweet corn,” says Dani. “I didn’t appreciate the diversity and resilience of these corn varieties around the Americas, or what we know as Turtle Island, until later. It was an eye opener. We need to protect varieties well-adapted to our climate and growing conditions. Mandaamin’s origins aren’t in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but it has been cultivated in the northern Great Lakes for many generations and now she does well here.” 

For this young farmer, saving seeds for food sovereignty is important for her community’s resilience. “Most seeds for home growers are provided by a handful of giant corporations,” she adds. “I want to see that change. Otherwise, how do we take care of one another, how do we preserve tradition and culture over time, or provide opportunities for people to learn? A big part of food sovereignty is growing our own food and controlling where our food comes from.” 

Connecting to Ancestral Roots 

Growing these crops and spending so much time on the land has helped her make deeper connections to her ancestral roots. 

“One way to connect to culture, history, and community, is to look at our Ojibwe plants and think about the growing conditions that they require and good companion plants,” Dani explains. “But it’s bigger than that. I had never spent so much time considering phenology, seasonal changes, or the annual timing of natural events than I have as a farmer. When I’m out in the field, whether it is planting or tending to the plants or harvesting seeds, I can’t help but pay attention to the birds. There were bobolinks nesting in the field when I planted in 2021, and I didn’t even know they lived there.” 

As she gets to know the many bird species in her fields, some of which create challenges and some of which take care of pests, she can’t help but wonder at nature’s miracles. 

“This time of year, you are a witness to migration every night, whether it is flocks of geese or cranes that are gathering up and heading back south,” she says. “You can even hear the change of season in the trees as the leaves begin to turn in the fall. Just being more in tune with what’s going on in the world around me has been one of the most positive effects that farming has had on my life. It’s a bigger way to connect me with what previous generations have done.” 

So, where does this busy farmer go to relax and escape on her property? You’ll often find her tucked inside some corn stalks or giant sunflowers, hidden from the road.  

Dani Fegan stands in giant sunflowers“Unless you’re up close, you can’t really see what’s growing here at the farm,” Dani says.

“So, you can enjoy the space and nobody out on the road really knows what is going on. They don’t realize there are dozens of varieties growing out in those fields. I also enjoy sitting out in the wooded part of our farm, and looking out over the young saskatoon fields at sunset. It’s a nice, quiet spot to take it all in.” 

Securing a Brighter Future for Three Dogs Seed Farm  

This year, Michigan seed saving farm Three Dogs Seed Farm was a recipient of a Brighter Futures Fund award of $5,000, which was sponsored by American Farmland Trust with generous support from Tillamook Dairy and other partners. Dani says the farm has already used the grant money to have a groundwater well drilled on the property.  

Sunchokes grow at Three Dogs Seed Farm, which saves seeds for food sovereignty.

Prior to this, Three Dogs Seed Farm lacked an onsite water source for irrigation, except for a few rain barrels near a shed. The farm prides itself on growing varieties that require minimum inputs, whether that be supplemental water or any sort of synthetic fertilizer that comes from off the farm. They do use compost.  

However, like most of the nation, the Upper Great Lakes region was experiencing extended drought conditions in 2021. 

“We got to the point where we had to get these plants water or we would lose all of them,” she says. “We ended up hauling water in my husband’s truck in containers from our home to our farm, and that is a lot of work. It also takes time and unnecessary fuel. We are very grateful for the financial support to install this well.” 

Dani Fegan near new solar powered well
The farm used its Brighter Future Fund grant to install a solar powered well.

The new well is outfitted with a solar-powered pump so there are no long-term electricity costs. When the farm gets to those extremely arid situations again, that water is available. The farm can also wash equipment and give produce an initial rinse. The farm expects the well will save them time, money, and fuel as well as make them more resilient to changes in precipitation over time.  

When Dani looks ahead to the future, she sees new opportunities. 

“I want to host more farm events, community gatherings, and educational opportunities focused on seedkeeping and other topics,” she says. “Someday I would love to see groups gathering to process the flint corn. I’m also very interested in growing more perennial crops from a practical and food resilience point of view. So, more perennial and self-seeding annual crops will be planted in the coming years. And I want to see others become more self-sufficient. That way, we’ll all be better off.” 

Follow Three Dogs Seed Farm on Instagram. 

About the Author
Teresa O'Connor

California Communications and Outreach Manager

toconnor@farmland.org

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