In Burt County this summer, rows and rows of identical corn fields painted a familiar and quintessentially Nebraska landscape — until you reached a quarter of an acre of land teeming with a diversity of crops near Lyons, about 70 miles northwest of Omaha.
12-year-old Evelyn, who did not share her last name for privacy, crouched down in a small patch of budding plants on a Saturday morning in June. With pale blue plastic gloves on her hands, she yanked weeds out of the earth and left the varied leafy crops between them rooted.
“We’re looking for the ones that are thicker,” Evelyn said in Spanish. She was among 14 other youth and adults of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim in the field separating invasive weeds from budding vegetables for the First Acre Milpa summer program.
Jackie Francisco, another youth program participant, could see progress already. She pointed to a white butterfly fluttering in the short grass.
“The first signs of life were lady bugs, spiders, different types of worms, and now you can see there are butterflies,” Francisco said. “It means that the crops are cultivating.”
Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (CMPI) is an indigenous-led organization for Nebraska’s Maya community — people of indigenous Maya descent whose ancestors originated in regions of present-day Central America. The group exists to empower and support the thousands of Maya people in Nebraska through cultural education and programming.
This summer, more than a dozen young Mayan Americans and some of their family members participated in the First Acre Milpa summer program, a small-scale regenerative agriculture collaboration between CMPI and the Latino Center of the Midlands. Nearly each Saturday morning, the group drove over an hour to a quarter of an acre of land in Lyons offered up to them for the project by Graham Christensen, a fifth generation Nebraska farmer.
The group blessed the soil and planted a mix of 40 types of seeds by way of the Milpa system — an indigenous crop-growing process of planting many crops together, rather than one crop on its own. They had lessons at CMPI’s sacred site and community center in South Omaha discussing ‘the three sisters’ — the sacred Maya seeds of corn, beans and squash — and learning about how biodiversity improves soil health and the environment.
Harvests in September brought more than 300 pounds of crops back to Omaha’s Maya community and reconnected youth with their Maya roots through indigenous farming practices. The program’s success is part of a statewide movement of investing in regenerative agriculture — sustainable farming methods Maya leaders, program collaborators and researchers say is a major solution to climate change issues impacting urban and rural Nebraska alike.
“Earth to us is our mother”
Today, about 10,000 Maya people reside in Nebraska, and about 3,000 live in the city of Omaha alone, according to Luis Marcos, the co-executive director and one of the founders of Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim. Coming to Lyons and cultivating food in the Milpa system reconnects participants displaced from their indigenous communities to their ancestral knowledge and culture, said Lola Juan, an adult leader with CMPI.
“Here, we let them have this connection and start to observe, start to know and understand how to protect the land, how to take care of the growth of the Milpa, and what the Milpa means in the life of the Maya people,” Juan told El Perico in Spanish on the group visit to Lyons in June.
Before getting to work in the field, Juan led the group in a prayer spoken in Q’anjob’al, one of many dialects spoken by indigenous Maya people.
“Corn is a very sacred element in Maya culture, so (in prayer) we ask for this wisdom, especially for the youth that are starting to return to their culture, return to their identity,” Juan said in Spanish as kids broke away from the prayer circle to survey the budding crops. “We accompany them here so they can begin to weave their path.”
Traditional Maya nations made strides as leading civilizations in mathematics, architecture, medicine, astronomy, agriculture and philosophy. But, as with other indigenous groups across the world, colonization brought on multiple cycles of violence that displaced, excluded, forced assimilation or exterminated Maya people, Marcos said.
Some Maya migrants from Guatemala, Mexico and other countries of Maya territories come to the U.S. fleeing violence and economic hardship. Once they arrive, many live in economic poverty and food insecurity. CMPI uses regenerative farming and the Milpa system in community garden plots at their South Omaha center, as well as in the project in Lyons, to combat food scarcity in a way that’s connected with their indigenous roots.
“Earth, to us, is not a natural resource — Earth to us is our mother,” Marcos said. “We are here to live in harmony and equilibrium, not only with humanity in its diversity, but also with Mother Earth.”
That means not using chemicals to contaminate soil. It means allowing soil to regenerate and heal itself over a period of time, letting native plants grow back and finding the use for every plant.
The community gardens and First Acre Milpa summer programs are first steps in a larger vision CMPI has to acquire hundreds of acres of their own land, Marcos said. It’s his goal for the community to establish a profitable and sustainable regenerative agroforestry and farm operation. This would give local Maya families more control in accessing their own food in sustainable ways, he said.
Nebraska’s growing regenerative movement
Regenerative agriculture is becoming more popular among farmers who see it as a solution to the climate crisis. Graham Christensen, the farmer who offered up land for the youth project this summer, knows regenerative farming as a solution to soil and water issues he see impacting Nebraska farmers like himself.
“What’s been going on everywhere is that we’re losing topsoil — a really lush, valuable topsoil,” he said. Topsoil is the uppermost layer of soil where the vast majority of food grows, making it one of the most important parts of the world’s food system.
Research shows that widely used, chemical-heavy farming techniques and climate change are spoiling earth’s soil at rapid rates. This hurts the earth’s ability to filter water, absorb carbon, and produce food.
That’s why Christensen founded GC Resolve, an environmental communication and consulting group focused on grassroots development, mobilization, and education to build more regenerative communities. The group works with likeminded partners like RegeNErate Nebraska, a network of farmers, tribes, organizations and communities committed to a shift from conventional agriculture toward a regenerative food production system in Nebraska.
As regenerative agriculture becomes more widely used, there’s a high risk of corporations and organizations “greenwashing” the technique, Christensen said. Greenwashing is when a group says they’re committed to farming practices that are environmentally conscious and responsible, but then continues to include chemicals or use farming techniques that go against the principles of regenerative farming.
“The only way that (regenerative agriculture) works is if its foundation is rooted in indigenous wisdom,” Christensen said. “That’s what has to hold it strong.”
“It’s like being at home”
On Friday, September 23, youth participants and chaperones of the First Acre Milpa summer program gathered in Lyons for the final day of harvest. The field that started as tiny budding plants was now teeming with squash, beans, pumpkins and other crops ready for picking.
“Look at the Three Sisters!” one girl screamed in English from the back of the field. The sacred crops of corn, beans and squash that were once seeds were interwoven together. Participants of all ages emerged from the tall crops with their hands full of squash, corn, beans and pumpkins.
Noemi Bravo, the project’s coordinator through Latino Center of the Midlands, weighed crops on a scale in the shade and found 100 pounds of crops were harvested, making the total of two harvest more than 300 pounds of food.
The program “took a lot of dedication” from young participants who went above and beyond each week, Bravo said. “They were there when the crop was seeded, they were there when it was harvested, so they got exposed at every single phase,” she said.
Back in the field, Evelyn scanned the tall foliage for any lingering crops.
“I learned we don’t need pesticides or chemicals to grow food,” Evelyn said reflecting on the time she spent in Lyons. Then she started to giggle as Kiki Bravo, a fellow participant and Noemi Bravo’s daughter, screamed in Spanish about a bug on the squash she picked.
When the plants were just little buds in the earth on the first day she visited Lyons, Evelyn had recently migrated to Omaha from Guatemala with her mom. As she stood in the tall harvest in Lyons in September, something she said back in June still seemed to ring true for her: spending time in the field with other Maya youth felt “like being at home,” she said in Spanish.
To learn more about Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim and support their work, visit their website.