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Optimizing the value of an ancestral Indigenous crop system

January 8, 2019

The 'Three Sisters' crop system was once widely used by First Nations in the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence Lowlands region. Grown together, corn, squash and beans help each other, resulting in much better crop yields.

Through a large-scale research project carried out in collaboration with Indigenous people of Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat heritage, experts from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and Canadian universities were able to increase their understanding of the benefits of the Three Sisters crop system.

The Department's commitment to protect the traditional knowledge and rights of First Nations was a key element of the project and served as a basis for developing a relationship of trust between Indigenous contributors and AAFC scientists.

Indigenous contributors shared heritage seeds preserved by seed keepers. Passed from generation to generation, these seeds are well adapted to their region's climate. Other heritage seeds used in the project came from artisan seed producers.

Scientists gathered data on the nutritional properties of various varieties of beans, corn and squash to identify those that are best suited for making Indigenous niche products, such as breads made with bean, squash or corn flour. Some of the results are described in an article entitled The Three Sisters: Optimizing the value and food potential of an ancestral Indigenous crop system.

This first large-scale study shed light on the social and economic potential of Three Sisters cultivation. More extensive studies may be necessary, but solid scientific knowledge is already available to Canadian First Nations communities interested in developing food and business opportunities associated with this traditional cultivation method.

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