FORT YATES — It's a miracle how much food can come out of one oversized back yard.
Sue Isbell, a program manager at the Sioux County extension office, and staff feed hundreds of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe all summer long from a combination box and hoop garden behind the office.
The plastic-covered hoops — small greenhouses, really — and compost-filled boxes take up most of the yard, though there's room for umbrella-shaded tables and a row of healthy young apple trees besides.
She calls it the "Helping Hands Community Garden," and it has become a place of relaxation and refuge for elders and others from the Fort Yates area.
Every Wednesday starting at 11 a.m., she and the extension staff hold a farmers' market.
They sell vegetables for $1 a pound, takers' choice, and about 250 pounds of fresh food is sold every week from the garden.
It's been a great program, she said. The joy of growing food is surpassed only by the joy of providing good nutrition to people who need it in a place where it's hard to come by.
"This is an extreme food desert," Isbell said. "There's one grocery between here and Bismarck and no consistent fresh produce. He (store owner) tries hard, but it's a small store and he can't carry it for a long time."
Isbell applied for a federal grant three years ago to get the program started.
"I'm a scavenger. We work hard here and we squeeze every dollar for what it's worth," she said.
It took some trial and error, but this year, the garden is spectacular and bountiful. The hoops are literally overflowing with vegetation, with vines sneaking their way outside and growing up between them.
"It's a jungle this year. We put in way too many vines," Isbell said.
A garden is always a learning curve and next year, vines will be relegated to the great outdoors and vegetables like tomatoes and peppers will be grown inside the hoops.
The beauty of the hoops is that they extend the growing season a month to six weeks on either end; Isbell said she's planning to start in March and see what happens next year.
"I'm pretty lucky at growing things," she said. "We're not afraid to try anything."
Along with the farmer's market, the extension nutritionists provide samples of foods made from the week's best crop.
Last week, cucumbers were plentiful so nutritionist Frank Martin made up a pitcher of ice water with cucumber slices, a chilled cucumber gazpacho soup and a traditional cucumber salad.
The week before, it was all zucchini, in muffins and breaded and baked zucchini "fries." Next week, it'll be all about green beans.
"We want people to get used to using fresh vegetables. Overall, American's don't eat very healthily," Martin said.
Isbell said she'd like to move the boxed garden concept out into the community and get families to commit to gardening at least a four-by-eight-foot box. She said it's surprising how much fresh food can be grown in so small a space.
Meanwhile, the extension garden fills a gap in the community and Isbell is pleased that a relatively small specialty food grant in a USDA program has grown way beyond her hopes and dreams for the people of Sioux County and Standing Rock.
Sitting for a moment, she takes in the overflowing boxes and the hoops bursting with vibrant, healthy vegetables.
"This is what it's come to," she said.