Native cooperative cultivates community through growing and trading corn

Farm and Food
Small Towns

Justin Carter contributed to this story.

Corn is key to connecting Oneida Nation families to their ancestors.

Fifteen families have come together to form the Ohe∙láku Cooperative, in Wisconsin, in an effort and desire to become more self-sufficient. As they’ve grown their cooperative, the members have learned a lot. 

“One of the biggest things we learned was that we’re not meant to grow corn by ourselves. We’re meant to grow corn together, like our ancestors before us,” said Laura Manthe, a member of the Ohe∙láku Cooperative.

When community members gathered to talk about experiences growing corn in their backyards, they discovered many had the same issues.

“The soil quality is low, so the corn doesn’t reach maturity,” said Lea Zeise, a member of the Ohe∙láku Cooperative. “If the corn does reach maturity, the raccoons wipe the whole garden out in one night. So, we decided to try an experimental, one-year pilot of growing together on a couple of acres to see what happens.”

What resulted was the formation of Ohe∙láku - Among the Cornstalks, a corn-growing and trading cooperative operated solely by volunteers. Members log their hours in a private Facebook group, and at the end of the season the corn is divided by the number of hours that were invested. There is a minimum volunteer hour threshold of 50 hours per year. New members join as apprentices, referred to as “Under the Wing.”

“The corn that we grow has nothing to do with the corn,” said Lea. “It has everything to do with the spiritual connection to the food and rebuilding our community in Oneida. We’ve known the people in our group for years, but when we spend that many hours together in the barn, we really, really know each other. We’ve developed this relationship where we can call on one another and trust that people are going to come and help.”

They chose the cooperative approach with an informal structure because of that deep level of trust, as well as to share the responsibility and benefits.

“We really try to be more flexible and just deal with issues as they arise the best way that we can,” Laura said.

Several resources aided in the development of the cooperative and have helped it become what it is today. They include a small Farmer Rancher grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education. In addition, the cooperative formed relationships with organizations like Intertribal Agriculture Council and Braiding the Sacred. They also received a grant from the Great Lakes Commission, and have been offered support from the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, which provides free land leases.

Members of the cooperative have been able to buy equipment they need to use regularly—a disc, a trailer, a 500-gallon sprayer, and two tractors, including a 1957 Case Tractor.

“We realized we needed to buy a cultivating tractor to get the weeds out from between the rows and found a 1945 Allis Chalmers cultivating tractor,” said Laura. “The equipment is stored at a barn the Oneida 4-H lets us use. We had access to equipment auctions and found what we needed in our budget.”

The Ohe∙láku members also use traditional methods of bartering rather than selling produce for money.

“We have enough corn now that we can trade with other people,” said Laura. “We do a lot of trades; we’ve traded for salmon, bison, honey, and maple syrup. It’s easy to put a dollar amount on something and understand it that way, but when you say, ‘I’m not going to sell it, but I’ll trade it,’ you stop and think about what you’re doing, the work that went into what you’re asking for, and the work that goes into what you’re offering. You get more of a connection with what it is that you’re dealing with if you don’t put a monetary value on it.”

The co-op has been so successful in what it does that others have come to its members for assistance in growing corn.

“We were approached by the Potawatomi Nation in Carter, Wisconsin, to help mentor them to grow corn,” said Laura. “They don’t have a lot of Potawatomi corn seed at this time, so they are going to use our seed to learn how to grow the corn. Then, as they become proficient, they will switch over and grow out the few corn seeds that they have of the Potawatomi corn variety.”

The co-op members say none of this would have been possible without the relationships and friendships they’ve made along the way, as well as the dedication and hard work of all the members at harvest time. To keep things running smoothly, members have monthly meetings at which they can all share their thoughts and ideas on the best way to run the co-op.

“Everybody’s input is really important because everybody has a gift in the way that they see something,” said Lea. “We try to make sure that everybody’s input is a part of every big decision that we make as a co-op.”

Standards for success

The current members of the cooperative hope to reach 50 members eventually. At that point, they feel they may need to be more formal with their rules, but until then, they follow a set of standards for success.

  • Use advisers and committees effectively: Organizing human resources and effectively using their expertise, along with maximum participation by potential members, is central to any successful business and crucial to the success of the cooperative.
  • Keep members informed and involved: Members’ participation in affairs of their cooperative increases their feeling of ownership and responsibility for its success.
  • Maintain good board-manager relations: The differing responsibilities of the board of directors and the manager must be clearly understood and carried out.
  • Conduct businesslike meetings: A good meeting is the result of planning ahead, involving members, following a published agenda, and following through on meeting actions.
  • Follow sound business practices: Complete an accurate documentation of income and expenses, exact member records, periodic operating statements and balance sheets, annual full reports, annual independent audits, and future planning.
  • Forge links with other cooperatives: An early exercise to determine whether to start a new cooperative is to investigate the alternative of linking with an existing cooperative that could expand its service territory.

Justin Carter, senior project associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, and Pamela Standing, co-executive director of programs and partnerships with the Minnesota Indigenous Business Alliance, interviewed Laura Manthe and Lea Zeise of Ohe∙láku - Among the Cornstalks in 2021 for a case study. To read the case study and learn more about their cooperative, click here.