My Three Sisters – Outliers Against Conventional Agriculture

My garden in Kabale

My garden in Kabale

My good luck last week came with the rain.

It had been bone dry in Kabale for over three weeks. The sun had baked the clay soil hard as a hockey puck. My garden was thirsty. And I was thirsty (and exhausted) from hauling water up the steep concrete steps that led to my gargantuan spanning garden. After so many days of watching the parched spinach and greens in my garden hanging sadly and having given up all hope of my climbing beans germinating…finally, after many prayers, it began to rain. When I heard the soft patter on the roof, I wanted to dance! Eh! I really felt some kind of happy gratitude, a deep appreciation for the skies split open and falling, falling on my garden.

Two months ago, I planted a steep slant of a garden with maize (corn) seed. The Kigezi region of southwestern Uganda is known as the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ and the people who live where are, truly, people of the hills. Outsiders, when they visit for the first time (myself included), always say the same thing: how beautiful the hills appear with their carved out steps, or terracing, and the plots saturated in multiple shades of green with sorghum, maize, cabbage, beans, and onions casting diverse textures.

Patchwork of plots on the slanted hills in Kigezi region, Uganda.

Patchwork of plots on the slanted hills in Kigezi region, Uganda.

I can now write with certainty that the task of bracing and balancing oneself against the hill, holding an efuka (hand-hoe) and planting seeds is not so beautiful in practice. The experience was physically exhausting – and I didn’t even have a baby on my back. Regardless, I sweated my way through planting over one hundred maize seeds. I waited a couple of weeks, and the March and April rains took care of the rest. Nearly all of the tender green plants shot up out of the soil.

Roasting maize in the Kigezi region, Uganda.

Roasting maize in the Kigezi region, Uganda.

Planting Diversity Against the Dry Season

I didn’t want to be blamed for bringing another monocrop of maize into the world (even though my favourite food these days is coal roasted corn, the sweet, blackened kernels eaten from the cob without butter or salt). So I planted pumpkin, as well, to give the corn some company. A few pumpkin seeds sprouted soon after; however, the slanted garden felt, somehow, lacking, and looking all too conventional with the corn forming uniform lines like rows of soldiers waiting for a command.

I wanted to plant the crop that carries homage to an age-old nickname of mine and is eaten worldwide for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The bean. The climbing bean. But by mid-May it was nearing the end of the rainy season, and so my friends (unaccustomed to planting during the dry season) warned against sowing the seeds.

Some determination and curiosity (which could also be called naivety) propelled me to ignore their advice and plant on. With a simple stick and watering can, and barefoot (boots make one clumsier working on the slant) I painstakingly planted 150 climbing beans, nestled in front of the maize plants that had grown green and strong at about 30 cm tall. Then I gathered cut-grass from the compound that the boys had slashed and laid out in the moisture-licking sun and covered the soil with mulch.

Recycled material irrigation system.

Recycled material irrigation system.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Everyday I returned to the garden with some hope, some meek expectations. But only weeds came. The sun continued to rise and fall without competition from the clouds. Only the hot rays glared down on us, with no liquid reprieve.

The rest of the crops in my garden suffered. The kale was hanging so sadly that I collected empty water bottles, pricked a small hole in their caps, and filled them to slow-drip down to the kale’s roots. The kale was saved, but there was no way I was going to be able to manage filling and replacing over 100 bottles to bring forth the beans from the ground. It would be a massive energy loss on my part, and between work, writing and tending to the other crops and my rabbits, there would be no time. So I had to prioritize. I gave up on the beans. The clay soil had formed a hard cap no plant could penetrate. They were baked beans in the ground. As a farmer, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and I had lost an afternoon’s worth of work and the cost of 150-some seeds.

“The power of nature can be so surprising,” my friend and fellow-farmer, Alphonse, said calmly when I lamented aloud my frustrations one evening. I shrugged him off. A seed would need a power-drill to penetrate the hardened terrain of my garden.

But strangely enough, only minutes later, we began to hear the sound of rain. Our faces cracked open into smiles wide as watermelons. We both had crops in the ground.

The following afternoon, I climbed to the garden to harvest kale for a colleague, glanced over to the slanted garden of maize, and nearly dropped what I was carrying. The beans had emerged! They were so many, parading green! They shook unsteadily in the wind, growing at the feet of the corn. Bean, the youngest family member, was at last born.

Together, maize, pumpkin and beans had united as a family of crops: The Three Sisters.


Comitancillo, Guatemala

Comitancillo, Guatemala

Viva la Familia: The Three Sisters (Las Tres Hermanas) 

I first learned about Las Tres Hermanas (The Three Sisters) while traveling and volunteering in Guatemala where farmers explained that maize, pumpkin and beans were traditionally planted together to grow the greatest collective quality and quantity of all three crops, provide security against the risk of diseases, pests and drought, and sustain soils for future harvests. Over the years, I’ve seen Las Tres Hermanas growing in small fields and gardens throughout all of Central America. Coming home to North America, I realized it was also traditionally practiced by First Nations groups, including the Iroquois.

The reason for planting Las Tres Hermanas is a similar story across cultures and growing conditions. It’s simple. Maize, pumpkin and beans, like a healthy functioning family,  share in the necessary work to survive and thrive. The Three Sisters grow cooperatively by integrating their individual needs and yields.

sister11Tall maize plants provide a structure for the beans to grow – meaning less work for the farmer to scavenge for poles or sticks. Beans release nitrogen back into the soil through a process called nitrogen fixation, which helps to nourish the other two sisters. Pumpkin grows low to the ground, covering the soil and acting as a living mulch that suppresses weeds and maintains moisture levels. Additionally, the prickly hairs of the pumpkin vine can also deter pests. And past the harvesting stage, The Three Sisters continue to work together for the benefit of the farmer. Maize lacks amino acids which are required by the human body to produce proteins and niacin; however, beans does not, and so when they’re enjoyed together in the same meal, beans helps to maximize the nutritional benefits of maize.

Indeed, maize, beans and pumpkin are three sisters that have matured in agricultural tradition through cooperation not competition.

Mural in Managua, Nicaragua.

Mural in Managua, Nicaragua.

While indigenous groups in Latin America and North America are commonly represented through cultural story and symbolism as “The People of the Corn,” it may be more accurate to describe them as “The People of The Three Sisters” because it’s clear that maize couldn’t have achieved the same ancient success without the support of beans, pumpkin and the farmer, who was wise enough to plant a family of crops versus a monocrop of corn.

Forest cover in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Forest cover in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.


Plants, People & Success – Hardy (Bt Corn) Seeds? Or Hard (Collective) Work?

Lately my evening entertainment (when there’s electricity) has been listening to audio books. Most recently Malcolm Gladwells’ The Outliers has been inspiring thoughts on understanding ‘success’ in all sectors of society (health, sports, computer technology, business, politics, etc.) and specifically, what elevates a person to move beyond being<em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>ordinary to being extraordinary in the world. One of Gladwells’ recipes for success was simple. Time. He argued that anyone could achieve success in any field if they practiced or applied themselves to their craft for a minimum of 10,000 accumulative hours. That’s only a year and then some (without stopping to surface for air).

The following morning, I found myself daydreaming about The 10,000 Hours Theory, with an odd twist: I didn’t think about people and success. I thought about plants and success. I thought about the evolution of seeds. I thought about indigenous planting systems. I thought about the hours (exponentially way beyond 10,000) that had been dedicated over thousands of years to sowing seeds, observing results, and saving varieties that would succeed under diverse conditions and circumstances. I thought about maize, beans and pumpkin.

The Three Sisters. I wondered: would they have evolved so successfully over the course of thousands of years…had they been planted as individuals, or a monocrop?

According to Gladwell, probably not.

“Biologists often talk about the ecology of an organism. The tallest tree in the forest is not just tall because it grew from the hardiest seed. It is also the tallest because no other trees blocked its sunlight, because the soil around it was deep and rich, because no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and because no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds – but do we know enough about the sun that warms them, or the soil in which they put down their roots?” (The Outliers)

sister15Like people, plants don’t succeed in isolation of where they come from nor the family of plants growing up and around them. The reason maize has prospered throughout North and Latin America isn’t because, for example, Monsanto, working from a sterile laboratory, genetically engineered an overachiever seed called Bt Corn. In fact, according to Gladwell’s logic of 10,000 Hours, the real experts were those accumulative ancient eyes and hands who recognized that maize produced a good yield and improved the yields of other crops (while resisting disease, pests and weather conditions) through planting a family of The Three Sisters.

sister16And yet – Monsanto’s isolated (orphaned) seed is exactly the symbolic paradigm that’s dominating global food policy and production today. Modify a maize seed (that was previously produced by a small farmer somewhere) with a single genetic trait, say, to resist rootworm (as was the case with Bt Corn) and then plant a field of maize alone. One plant from the same laboratory-maize seed, miles and miles of farmer’s fields packed together, stalk to stalk. Standing obediently: an army of maize.

But what happens when disaster falls upon a field of one? We can look to the recent example of Monsanto’s Bt Corn (that’s saturated farmer’s fields throughout the US Midwest over the last decade) whereby the dreaded rootworm developed a resistance trait against the Bt Corn, that was documented by Iowa State University.

“For the scientific community, the results are not entirely unexpected. “Given that other researchers have reported that Bt resistance is fairly easy to select for in the lab, we suspected it was just a matter of time before we would see it in the field,” writes Christian Krupke, Purdue University Extension entomologist” (Moore, 2011).

Bred and marketed by Monsanto as a seed for guaranteed success, Bt corn in the US Midwest has actually proved more a failure, especially to the farmer who’s lost his/her money, time, and, worst of all, indigenous maize seed. So who’s really succeeded?

“Now insecticide sales are surging as farmers look for ways of protecting their investments with tools that GM corn seeds were supposed to have made obsolete” (Tremonti, 2013).


The US Midwest’s fields have become flooded with Monsanto’s Bt corn.

Maize as a monocrop, and the corporations that have patented, packaged, sold and controlled corn, have grown to transform and dominate the conventional global food system. So if anyone has really achieved the extraordinary, it’s those who have modified and commoditized maize. Corporations, like Monsanto, have succeeded at the expense of everyone else: farmers, consumers, and the environment.

The Outliers – Sisters Standing Against Conventional Agri-Culture

The Three Sisters remains in the hands of a small percentage of farmers who recognize resilience in diversity and the collective success of planting a family. Today – The Three Sisters, one of the most ancient agricultural practices of North and Latin America has become an Outlier…waiting indifferently…for the collapse of the global conventional (unsustainable) agriculture system.

It’s true that today’s system asks too much of our land, people and resources. There’s no equilibrium in a field of maize. There’s only short-term gains – and the depletion of too many resources to grow dollars (not food) until soils are stripped and sold off because they’ve become unprofitable.

sister19But the Sisters will remain. They will restore these soils.

I’m hopeful for my slanted garden of maize, pumpkins and the newly germinated beans. I’m learning to define success less on having sky-high yields of a singular crop, and more on nurturing a well-balanced, integrated system. Success is familial. Success is collective.

For plants, for people.


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