For the owners of the 14-acre Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Newton, farming is more than just a means of generating profit — it’s a means of survival.
“This is what we have to do to save our people’s lives,” said Vincent Mann, Turtle Clan Chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation and co-founder of the farm.
Mann and Michaeline Picaro, an elder member of the Turtle Clan, co-created the for-profit farm in 2019 to address food insecurity in their community, they said. But, they have much bigger plans in the works.
Through the cultivation of cash crops, the pair hopes Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm will serve as a sustainable source of revenue for their nonprofit, the Ramapough Culture and Land Foundation. Working in partnership, these two ventures hope to provide the Turtle Clan community with opportunities for nourishment, healing and justice.
Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann holds a hemp plant at the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Chickens of different varieties are raised at the farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The Ramapough Lenape Nation is one of New Jersey’s state-recognized Native American tribes whose members live in northern New Jersey counties, as well as in surrounding areas in New York. It suffers from high rates of poverty, not unlike other indigenous communities across the country. But the Turtle Clan also has a unique threat all its own, having lived for the past 57 years on a Superfund site, a federal designation for areas that have suffered severe pollution.
Between 1967 and 1971, the Ford Motor Company dumped industrial waste from its nearby factory in the area of Ringwood Mines, where many Ramapough families live. It was removed from the Superfund list in 1994, but after an investigation from The Record newspaper in 2005, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency re-listed the site.
To this day, the EPA is still overseeing a multi-million dollar remediation and cleanup of the site, funded mostly by Ford and the borough of Ringwood.
In the years since the dumping, residents have reported increased incidences of asthma, cancer, diabetes, miscarriages, and skin conditions, per a study conducted by New York University. Picaro, who lives on Lake Lenape, said she’s seen “young and old” get sick.
“It’s traumatic,” she said.
Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann stands among growing hemp plants at the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Early morning fog lingers in a field at the entrance to the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm, September 13, 2021. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Though the EPA has said the area has no remaining “unacceptable” levels of contaminant exposure for people, it says the continued cleanup work is, “necessary to protect public health or welfare or the environment from actual or threatened releases of hazardous substances into the environment.”
Health implications haven’t been the only concerns for members of the Turtle Clan, who say their way of life, including hunting, planting, and gathering, has been upended by the pollution. Given the risk of contamination, the Turtle Clan now relies heavily on food distribution programs throughout the state, which generally struggle with nutritional quality, according to a recent study.
“That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to get this farm up and going,” Picaro said. “We just thought, at the very least we can supply healthy food for people to help them heal.”
Starting the farm
It was a cool day in late fall 2019 when Picaro was driving down U.S. 206 in Newton and spotted a small sign advertising available acres of farmland. She and Mann had been looking for land to lease to no avail.
When she saw the plot in Newton, Picaro pulled over and took down the number on the sign. She learned the land was being leased by the Foodshed Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Enterprise (SAgE), a program “designed to make preserved farmland accessible to farmers at affordable long-term leases,” according to its website.
That was encouraging, but what really sealed the deal for Picaro was learning the town of Newton was formerly inhabited by indigenous people, as indicated in historical land surveys and archaeological records.
“So we’re back on the land that our ancestors worked, lived, breathed and died on,” Picaro said.
She and Mann jumped at the opportunity to lease the farm in Newton, using personal savings to purchase farm equipment. It was an arguably big risk for the pair to tackle a commercial farming venture, but Picaro doesn’t feel that way.
“It could be a risk. Or it’s working with the infrastructure that you have to make your vision come true,” she said.
Sunflowers bloom at the farm. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Sign for the Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Newton. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The name of the business, Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm, is a nod to three things: the Munsee, a subtribe of the Lenape; the three sisters, a moniker for the three main agricultural crops of various indigenous peoples (corn, beans and squash); and the medicinal power of food and herbs.
“When people come here, we want them to feel like they’re walking into a medicine cabinet for the mind, body, and soul,” Picaro said.
In the farm’s first year, Picaro and Mann began cultivating crops on 9 out of the farm’s 14 acres, planting the three sisters, along with radishes and potatoes. They also purchased chickens and have begun to sell fresh farm eggs. After receiving a permit from the state, the farm can also begin growing hemp, a plant long utilized by Native Americans to make products like fabric and soap. The majority of the labor is shouldered by Picaro and Mann, with occasional help from volunteers on weekends. It involves a lot of long hours and late days, but Mann said he doesn’t mind.
“Our people have suffered immensely and we want to change that for future generations,” said Mann, who has been on a mission to advocate for his community since 2008.
He hopes to begin distributing a portion of the crops grown at the farm to the Turtle Clan community on a bi-weekly basis next year. If supply allows, donations will also be sent to underserved areas in Newark, Newton, Passaic, and Paterson.
Mann is hopeful that in addition to being able to provide food for the Turtle Clan, Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm will serve as a source of revenue for the community.
“Anything we can do to help our community, we’ll try and do it,” he said.
Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann prepares to throw a rock for farm dogs, Sadie, left, and Blueberry. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Farm co-founders Vincent Mann and Michaeline Vicaro. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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