Dan Cornelius and Sustainable Farming
In Harmony with Mother Earth
|Dan Cornelius poses with a corn braid that he taught UW-Madison
students how to do out at the Eagle Heights Community Garden.
honey. And I had some hominy corn and wild rice. I just mixed them together and put vinegar in. I’m trying to do socially—distanced, hands-on activities. And we
would do more of all of that in a regular class, but we’re just trying to adapt during these times.”
In addition to doing research and outreach for the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center, part of the UW-Madison Law School, Cornelius is also a technical assistance
specialist with the Inter-Tribal Agriculture Council. Cornelius almost acts as an extension agent with Wisconsin’s 11 tribes teaching members sustainable farming
techniques. And Cornelius uses his farm called Yowela?talíh^ or Gentle Wind located near Stoughton and two other plots of land to experiment and develop
techniques that he can teach to the tribes.
Cornelius also develops techniques through working with different classes of students in the Madison area. One class experimented with corn.
“We grew five different types of Ojibwe corn, growing them side-by-side under the same or similar conditions to see how they would grow in comparison with one
another,” Cornelius said. “It was really cool. Three of those were different Bear Islands. And one of those Bear Islands finished in 70 days versus the longest one
took 120 days. That’s a 50-day difference. You look at the kernels and they look almost the same. That’s part of a broader effort of working with different tribal
growers and what we call rematurating seeds. We’re getting seeds back to the communities from which they originated. And we also just provide more general
support of helping people get back into growing or learn how to grow. Part of that is just connecting with seeds. Some of the seeds from that 70-day plant, I have a
whole bunch of them that we will get out to different communities for this next year. It makes a pretty big difference if you have a 70-day versus a 120-day corn when
you are trying to grow up in Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan.”
Cornelius has also been developing techniques at his farm.
“A lot of the work that I am doing is trying to look at historically how we would have grown,” Cornelius said. “Historically we didn’t have big tractors, tillers and all of
that. It would have been a no-till system. I’ve been working to bring back that no-till method. Over the past several years, I’ve used a walk-behind tractor. And I use
an attachment called the rotary plow that just plows a narrow strip. I’ve been growing straight into reed canary grass and in low areas. Historically, a lot of those
fields would have been in low-lying areas because you have rich soil there. You’ve got water. The water table is a lot closer. This year we had severe drought. If we
don’t have water, that corn doesn’t do that well. That’s why a lot of the historic fields were in low-lying areas. I’ve been using that walk-behind tractor with the rotary
plow. I take it out every year to between 3-5 different tribal communities. I’ve got an enclosed trailer and it’s pretty easy to tow that around. This year, I went up to Lac
du Flambeau working through a grant that will allow them to get their own equipment like that. It’s an example where we’re using some modern technology, but using
it in a way that more closely mimics and follows the traditional way of planting.”
But Cornelius is committed to disturbing as little of the land as possible — limiting the amount of erosion that occurs — by not tilling at all.
“A no-till planter is designed to limit erosion,” Cornelius said. “These planters have been around for 30-40 years. It’s not a new technology. But most of the
conventional farmers who are doing no-till are going to be spraying Round-Up or some sort of herbicide to kill everything else that is there. And of course, I don’t
want to do that. You have a lot more competition from all of those grasses and other plants there that are soaking up nitrogen and those nutrients. I just need to apply
more fertilizer next year. And I’m trying to do some slight modifications on my planter to get a little bit more of a disturbance. I have these row cleaners that clean out
any debris, but they also clear out some of that grass that is there too. I’m trying to put a little bit more pressure on them. I’m really trying to give that corn as much of
a boost as possible in that first month of its growth. Even with that drought, my field is pretty hard. I only had about one-half inch of rain over six weeks with 90
degree temperatures through a lot of that time. But that’s part of having resilient seeds and a resilient approach to growing. We have to recognize that we’re going to
have these extremes of a whole lot of rain and then not very much. Also the temperatures in the past couple of years have had some pretty big fluctuations. Having
both seeds that can handle that and having production approaches that can handle that is the key to really having a driving and resilient agricultural system.”
And Cornelius wants to develop systems with natural fertilization, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem, using organic and livestock waste.
“I’m also working to add livestock into my system,” Cornelius said. “Hopefully in the next month, I’m going to be adding a 3-5 cows and a couple of horses. People
say, ‘Awe, you should be using buffalo. Maybe in the future I will be using buffalo. But really using those grazing animals to mimic the effect that the buffalo and the
other grazing animals would have had historically and trying to use them to put more nutrients into the land and try to reduce the need that I have for applying other
fertilizers. Also next year, I found a source of organic water-soluble nitrogen. I’m going to max out my application of that with my corn planter when I am planning to
try to get this no-till system working as good as possible.”
Cornelius is working hard to create a sustainable agriculture that is in harmony with Mother Earth.
“You read the historical accounts of these lakes and they were just crystal clear and had these bubbly, sandy bottoms with wild rice growing around the shores of all
of the lakes and the low swampy ground,” Cornelius said. “All of that was historical wild rice fields. And through changes in how the land is used, we have lost the
clear water. We have lost most of the wild rice. And we’ve got these green, soupy lakes today.”
With Cornelius’ research and applied knowledge, perhaps someday we shall once more live in harmony.
By Jonathan Gramling
Dan Cornelius is a hard man to catch up with. He has immersed his life into sustainable
farming both drawing upon Native techniques as well as bring those techniques or
facsimiles of them back to American Indian Nations — and others — in Wisconsin.
I caught up with Cornelius out at the Eagle Heights Community Gardens on a gray October
afternoon. He had just finished teaching a class for a UW-Madison FIG and was
constructing a corn braid out of harvested corn and corn husks.
“Right now, I am teaching a class called The Land Education,” Cornelius said. “It’s part of a
first year interest group called a FIG where incoming students take one main course that is
typically limited to 20 students. Ours was limited to 15 students. The students take their
central courses and then they have two linked classes. Our FIG is ‘Listening to the Land.’
And we have it linked with ‘Principles of Environmental Science’ and Introduction to
Ojibwe.’ It keep me busy. With COVID-19 and everything, there isn’t as much travel, but
there is a lot more constant stream of Zoom meetings. The class also takes up a lot of time.
So the challenge is we don’t really have a dedicated outdoor classroom space on campus.
So today, we met up at the Eagle Heights Gardens. There’s a fire ring here. I made a couple
of dishes for the students to try, a blue corn and chia seed pudding with maple syrup and