Staff spotlight: Suzi helps gardeners plant seeds of success on Omaha Reservation

When Suzi French helps people grow plants in their gardens, she’s also helping them build businesses from the ground up.

A community food associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, Suzi has been assisting residents on the Omaha Reservation since 2015. She wears many different hats in her role and takes pride in every aspect of her work.

“This job requires a person who is experienced working within Native communities, who is persistent, and determined,” she said. “This role requires a person who can teach, learn, and grow. As we assist the communities we serve, we learn with the producers, from planting the seed to harvesting the crop.”

A member of the Omaha Tribe, Suzi grew up on the Omaha Reservation, and has raised animals with her family on their farm for the past 13 years. They raise cows and calves, swine, chickens, horses, and dogs. She didn’t get into gardening until recently.

“Prior to working for the Center, I had not grown anything, and had little knowledge about gardening,” she said. “So, I researched, studied, asked local farmers, and basically learned right alongside the producer.”

Suzi also recently obtained her associate’s degree from Nebraska Indian Community College, to help aid in her work at the Center. She strives to continuously work to bring more knowledge to those she assists.

“We focus on growing the food with each producer, but we also lay the groundwork for building a business, using their garden-grown produce, or we focus on market sales for our local producers and artisans.” Suzi said. “So, you have to be a salesman and have strong customer service skills.”

Farmers markets have been a great way for gardeners to build their businesses, as well as for Native and non-Native people to connect.

“The farmers markets have become a place of inclusion for our community,” she said. “Natives and non-Natives come together to support our farmers markets, some sell their goods, and some buy. This is the only place on the Omaha Reservation that this is happening.”

Among the many other characteristics her job requires of her, Suzi says she has to be reliable, a fast learner, and someone who can adapt to find solutions. This hefty list of responsibilities doesn’t leave her feeling daunted, however. She finds joy in the assistance she gives to each gardener.

“I get to witness changes firsthand and see the impact of our work,” Suzi said. “Knowing the work we do is changing lives is more than I could ask for. If it is harvesting something from the garden for the first time and eating it fresh, or selling their products at the farmers markets, it matters. The excitement from the community members when you come to help them get their gardens started or bring them plants—that is the best part of doing this work.”

And, Suzi is there to guide the gardeners every step of the way.

“We assist with it all—their successes are our successes, their failures are our failures,” she said. “My goal is to have a complete sustainable community food system that can be replicated into other communities. I’m here to help make that happen, however I can.”

Suzi works with residents who live on the Omaha Reservation, Native and non-Native, in the towns of Macy, Rosalie, Walthill, Thurston, Pender, and all the rural areas in between. She can be reached at her home office at 402.922.1063 or suzif@cfra.org.

Suzi selected for national training

In October 2019, Suzi was selected to attend Native Organizing Alliance’s annual training. The training is for Native American community organizers who work on health and nutrition issues. Out of 120 applicants nationwide, Suzi was chosen to be one of the 20 trainees in 2019.

The training took place in Lake Andes, South Dakota, and covered organizing techniques in Indian Country, community engagement principles, gathering local support for initiatives, building partnerships, and Native storytelling.

“I’m excited to learn new skills for working within the Omaha Nation community, and to build connections and partnerships with other Native organizers from across the country,” Suzi said.

Suzi has been organizing gardeners, farmers, and small business owners across the Omaha Reservation for the past three years. In 2019, she supported 340 gardeners and 20 farmers market vendors.