My Davidson | A Student Blog ​​My Summer Research Testing the ‘Three Sisters’

a group of people harvest corn on a cloudy day

Volunteers harvesting the first round of Catawba Flour Corn grown at the Davidson College Farm in the summer of 2022.

Ty Cryan ’24 digs into research with Davidson College’s Farm and Biology Department as part of a larger relationship with the Catawba Nation.

About the Author

Ty Cryan ’24 is an environmental studies major from Burlington, North Carolina.

"Strength in unity

Rectify past injustice.

Move forward through corn."

The sound of sifting corn kernels and cheerful, albeit groggy, chatter filled the air as the morning fog lifted into an overcast gray sky. The dampness of the morning couldn’t damper the mood as our mighty contingent of corn planters kicked off the second year of partnership with the Catawba Nation. Halfway through the first row, my failing knees and unsteady balance compelled me to kneel rather than squat as our group of about a dozen students, professors and farmers planted the latest batch of Catawba corn at the Davidson College farm. Like the bright, piedmont clay-colored spot staining the knee of my favorite pair of jeans, the Catawba corn and the partnership around it has left a lasting impression on both the Davidson community and my life.

Fate coupled with a little initiative and a burning passion for plants led me to Susana Wadgymar’s evolution ecology lab at the end of my sophomore year. A senior in the lab at the time, Louisa Bartkovich, told me about an awesome project involving corn, scientific exploration, and native food sovereignty, and I made it my mission to become involved. Despite the summer of 2022 being filled with evolutionary ecology research, lots of laughs with an incredible lab group, and an ungodly amount of corn, I hadn’t had enough. This summer, I returned for more, taking on more responsibility in the lab and leading a research project of my own.

The project I am leading, a three sisters (corn, beans, squash) efficiency experiment, is just one aspect of a holistic and reciprocal partnership between Davidson College and the Catawba Nation. For example, our lab group spends one day each week volunteering at Black Snake Farm, the Davidson College Farm has planted roughly 2,000 seeds of Catawba flour corn for the Nation, and our lab is assisting in rematriation efforts of 50-year-old Catawba sweet corn. In addition, the Catawba Nation has provided incredible student experiences and the infusion of impactful ideologies on campus. While the corn has been the centerpiece of the partnership, it is situated within the larger context of native food sovereignty: enter the three sisters.

In a three sisters’ field, corn is planted in mounds of four, each with a bean plant a few inches away. The corn provides a structure for the bean to climb, while nodules in bean roots harbor nitrogen fixing bacteria, which benefits the corn. Squash, grown a few feet to either side of the corn-bean mound, spreads its leafy arms across the soil, thus shading out weeds and keeping the microbiome cool. In short, the three sisters have a reciprocal relationship with each other that promotes growth and maintains balance in the environment.

rows of farm fields on a blue sky, sunny day

The three sisters versus monoculture experimental plots at Black Snake Farm as seen on June 7th, about three weeks after the corn was planted.

The experiment is currently underway at the Catawba Nation’s Black Snake Farm and will assess yield produced and labor required for three sisters versus monoculture growing methods. The three sisters had been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years before industrial monocropping became the norm. A rising awareness of the harms of repeated monocropping, which requires massive inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, coupled with the small-scale nature of Black Snake Farm, prompted us to step back and ask what would be most efficient from a labor, environment, and yield standpoint: thousands of years of symbiosis of crops with the land or the methods of modern technology?

Whatever the answer, the project hopes to help us rediscover balance with ourselves and the earth: to pinpoint the best way for the Catawba Nation to produce food while maintaining a reciprocal relationship with the land and each other. The growing partnership between Davidson College and the Catawba Nation, of which I have had the privilege of being closely involved, exemplifies the ideas of reciprocity and balance at every turn. With a foundation in the philosophies of balance, reciprocity, and partnership, no challenge is insurmountable.


  • July 10, 2023