The Coushatta Tribe is located primarily in Allen Parish, just north of the town of Elton and east of Kinder, LA. After Hernando DeSoto stumbled on the Coushatta in Tennessee in 1540, they moved several times in an effort to avoid Europeans. In the late 18th century they arrived in Louisiana, where they moved their villages several times, eventually settling near Elton in the late 19th century. The tribe was terminated by the federal government in 1953, but then regained federal recognition in 1973. The Tribe opened the Coushatta Casino Resort in 1995, which is now the second largest private employer in LA, and they also operate a variety of smaller business enterprises, as well as health, educational, social and cultural programs. The tribe currently owns 5,000 acres of land in Allen Parish and 1,000 acres in surrounding parishes land is used for tribal housing, rice and crawfish farming.
One of the more recent tribal ventures is their hydroponics project, established in 2011 and run by Gardner Rose, Director of Natural Resources for the Coushatta Tribe. Gardner was the museum coordinator, until it accidentally burned down a few years ago, putting his job on hold. In the mean time, Bertney and Linda Langley in the heritage department were successful in acquiring an ANA (Assoc. of Native Americans) grant to fund a hydroponics project. They had seen a similar project at Disney World in Florida, and wanted the Tribe to try it as both a money making venture, as well as a way of providing fresh produce to the community, raised without the use of pesticides and herbicides. As someone with an interest in environmental science who grew up in a farming family, Gardner was selected as the manager of the project. He now works with a team of three men, managing four greenhouses that produce thousands of pounds of produce, most of which is sold at the farmers market in Elton, to wholesale retailers, and to the casino restaurants.
When we toured the greenhouses on May 26, 2014, we caught the tail end of the lettuce harvest. Because lettuce prefers cooler temperatures, it is grown throughout the winter season, but production tapers off in late spring as the temperatures rise. To keep these greenhouses in production, Gardner is considering growing herbs like basil and parsley, crops that will be slightly more heat tolerant, in the trays that are now sitting empty. The bib lettuce, planted in little sponges of wool, rest in white plastic trays, with a constant stream of nutrient rich water washing over their roots. A system in the corner of the greenhouse measures the conductivity of the water (which tells the nutrient density) and ensures that the ph of the water remains at about 5.9. When they reach the right size, the entire plant is plucked up out of the tray and sold as “living lettuce,” able to live in the customer’s refrigerator for up to a month without wilting. The system is powered by solar panels installed on the roof of the neighboring garage.
The most profitable part of the operation is usually the tomato houses. Ordinarily, this time of year two of the greenhouses would be full of Geronimo hybrid tomato plants, 1600 per greenhouse to be exact. The plants grow for nine months to a year, producing around 100,000 pounds of tomatoes in a year for the whole operation.
Unfortunately during our visit the greenhouses were barren, the plants having succumbed to a blight carried in from the Caribbean by hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The fungus settled in local soybean fields, and became airborne again when the plants were harvested. During this past fall it made its way into the greenhouse ventilation system, killing all of the plants during December and January. Spider mites were also a problem this year- Gardner suspects they may have hitched a ride on the dozens of people who come to tour the greenhouse every month.
For this reason, he is considering constructing a more transparent north facing wall on one of the greenhouses, so that visitors can peer in without contaminating the crops. Because the operation had been consistently producing so many delicious tomatoes, many people in the area stopped growing tomatoes in their own garden, and are anxious for the hydroponics operation to be back up and running. But first Gardner and his grew will need to sterilize everything in the greenhouse, from the Dutch buckets that house the plants, to all of the hoses that bring them nutrients, to the walls and ventilation system of the greenhouse.
Another project that the Natural Resources department has been working on is the restoration of the long leaf pine. In 2008, the tribe partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife to re-establish a 40 acre site of long leaf pine for basket makers. The pines diminished due to logging, and because the tribe no longer practices controlled burns, which once encouraged the growth of the pine by limiting its competitors. Post logging, loblolly pines were planted because they grew faster, but the needles of this pine are not culturally useful. The Coushatta tribe is now working to encourage the growth of long leaf pines in an effort to restore and maintain the basketry tradition.