The Greenhouse Effect 

Growing independence on the Blackfeet Reservation

Even when it’s howling outside, springtime is perpetual at the Blackfeet Community College’s greenhouse in Browning.

At 5 degrees above zero—not an uncommon temperature on the wind-hammered prairie east of Glacier National Park—the temperature inside the school’s oversized geodesic dome stays a balmy 46 degrees, says tribal herbalist Wilbert Fish. It’s rare that caretakers need to turn on the heater, even in the depths of winter.

The secret to the structure’s success, Fish says, is that the dome is modeled after a traditional sweat lodge. Unlike conventional greenhouses, which are often shaped like a rectangle, the dome design keeps warm air circulating. In fact, the coldest part of the structure’s 63,000-square-foot interior is in the center. With many other greenhouses, cold air travels along the walls and congregates on the floor, he says.

“We know sweat lodges pretty well, how heat rises and travels around,” Fish explains.

Perched on the east end of the school’s campus, the dome looks like an errant space station. But inside, a profusion of shrubs, flowers and food crops—all grown organically—quickly reveals its earth-bound purpose.

Fish, who also serves as the college’s agricultural extension agent, helped establish the dome in 1998 with the help of an advisory board of tribal and federal officials, including Joyce Lapp, a Flathead Valley botanist who works for the National Park Service. The group used the Internet to track down a consultant in England who specializes in building large domes. Construction was completed by students at the tribally controlled college. One of the dome’s unique features is its floor, which allows “the Earth’s energy to come up from the ground and nourish the plants,” Fish says. The sides are also unusual. They’re made from a plastic polycarbonate that has stood up to winds lashing through town at over 120 miles per hour.

“You could throw a hammer at it and it would bounce back,” Fish says of the material. Unlike glass, the polycarbonate doesn’t reflect the sun’s ultraviolet rays, allowing them to ping-pong around inside. The entire structure, he says, was built for $63,000, about $1 per square foot. Funding for the project was provided by the National Park Service and the federal Bureau of Reclamation, both of which use plants grown in the greenhouse for restoration projects. Other sponsors include the Blackfeet Tribe, the Browning School District and Montana State University-Bozeman.

The list of plants grown at the facility is lengthy, and much of the work is experimental. Fish, his wife, Bonnie, and his sister, Sally, raise a variety of herbs, including comfry, wild licorice, spearmint and peppermint, mountain cicely, sarvis berries and echinacea. They also sprout Douglas fir, Western larch, lodgepole pine and spruce seedlings for various forestry programs. About 8,000 echinacea plants currently in production may be sold to a Missoula-based pharmaceutical firm, Fish says. Each year, thousands of native shrubs and grasses end up in Glacier Park, where they are used to repair lands damaged by overuse, road expansions or other development.

The greenhouse crew also grows a smattering of food plants, such as corn, cucumbers, green beans, onions, parsley, chives, sweet basil and oregano. The starts are sold to the public for use in private gardens, which Fish sees as an integral way of promoting healthy diets on the reservation. The greenhouse also sells cut flowers and various shrubs at the lowest possible prices. Volunteers help when they can, but it’s sometimes tough keeping unpaid workers.

“They always seem to come on fertilizer day, and they don’t come back,” jokes Sally Fish.

The Fishes says they’ve had unusual luck growing such things as gooseberry and huckleberry bushes, which are tough to cultivate in captivity. Last year, the greenhouse even grew sweetgrass sprouts to help the tribe revitalize reservation areas that have been overharvested.

Buffalo grass, long a natural plant staple on the northern Great Plains, has been raised, as well. One of the plant’s most distinguishing features is that it holds a lot of nutrients through the winter, Wilbert Fish says.

While the college, which was chartered by the Blackfeet Tribe in 1974, has helped subsidize the project in the past, Fish says he expects the operation to become self-sustaining next year. Then, he says, proceeds from the greenhouse will be turned back to the college to help finance its operations, which are now largely dependent on grants and other “soft” money. He also wants to build a new nursery on the campus so program can be expanded. A small worm farm that’s already in use may be enlarged, both for the creatures’ nutrient-rich castings and possibly as an outlet for anglers, who flock to the reservation from all directions.

Wilbert contends that the lack of artificial chemicals is responsible for extraordinarily healthy plants and a disease-free history at the site. Finned-fish emulsion and other natural fertilizers are a primary food for the plants and trees, and insects such as ladybugs are used to control pests. In all, Fish says he thinks the operation is about 30 years ahead of its time.

“We’re able to grow things no other greenhouse in the country could grow,” he says proudly. He adds that he wants to use the program to teach other tribal members about indoor horticulture, which he sees as an important wave of the future. As part of that vision, he wants to help others build their own domed greenhouses elsewhere. “My whole intent is to find jobs for our people and to restore our lands to a natural state,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is open the door so people see other alternatives.

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