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Lucas Humblet

In June 2015, Lucas Humblet (Oneida) was working in a machine shop recycling pallets when a chop saw accident took the pinkie finger off his left hand. Humblet, who’d been working in the shop for nearly a year since graduating high school the prior summer, decided it was time to reevaluate his career path. After a few months of soul searching and a talk with his sister about possibilities, he enrolled in an agriculture program the following September.

Today, Humblet is an aquaponics coordinator for the Oneida Nation Farm to School Program, studying sustainable food and agriculture systems at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Tattooed on the fingers of his left hand, are the symbols  “< = >” symbolizing the idea that “less is more” – a minimalist description that reflects his minimalist lifestyle.

Humblet was also a student leader for this summer’s Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit who became engaged with youth mentoring after his younger brother Nate attended the 2015 Indian Agriculture Youth Alliance at the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. With a little convincing from Nate, Lucas decided to attend the #nativeyouthsummit in April at the Great Lakes Regional conference.

Humblet’s left hand

He heard about the summer summit while at the regional conference, and thought it sounded like something he’d be interested in. “So I applied and boom, they called me,” he said.

Humblet said his experience in Arkansas as a student leader was profound. “It was awesome, there was that sense of family there.” And with thoughts of being a teacher, he said the opportunity to have an impact on students only a few years younger than him was particularly meaningful. “Some of the youth, they look up to me, and I love that, I love the feeling, that I’m a part of something greater.”

Humblet is applying his education in sustainability and “less is more” philosophy to his work with the Oneida Nation Farm to School Program. He and his colleague Chris Brodhagen are setting up a greenhouse sized aquaponic operation to provide fresh fish and leafy green vegetables to the students of the Oneida School system.

Jesse Padron, director of food service for the program, said the aquaponic project is part of a larger food initiative by the Oneida Nation to improve the quality of food and nutritional education in the Oneida school district. And according to Padron, it’s working.

“The purpose of our program is to educate students at a young age about food sovereignty and sustainability, and why it’s important,” he said. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”

Humblet and Brodhagen hope to have the aquaponics system operational by early 2017.

Humblet agrees. He said it’s the efficiency and sustainability of aquaponics that draws him to the process, and he loves being able to help expand his tribe’s food systems and sovereignty through his work.

“At its core, aquaponics is a symbiotic, soilless growing system where fish waste feeds plants, and the plants purify the water cycling back for the fish,” he said. “In theory you could grow the [fish] food right there in the grow beds, and your only cost would be electricity and the initial inputs.”

If everything goes according to plan, Humblet said the operation should produce 800 to 1,200 heads of lettuce and around 900 lbs. of fish annually for the local community.

Humblet’s passion for “less is more” agriculture is apparent when he talks about the importance of small-scale, sustainable, independent food systems. He said he hopes to see a return to less centralized agriculture operations, where more food is grown and sourced locally, and communities like Oneida can feed their own people.

Humblet believes he is part of a movement among a growing number of Native American youth beginning to regain interest in the importance of agriculture and the important role of food systems in Native American communities.

“There’s a lot more youth that are interested in it (agriculture) than I actually expected,” he said. “I see that there is hope for the future, and that we have to be the ones to take the first steps, but once we take them who knows what will happen.”