Indigenous people in this region have a long history of successful agricultural entrepreneurship based on cultural understanding of inter-relatedness and working in harmony within complex systems. The Navajo Nation’s tribal government was established by the U.S. federal government in 1923, primarily to create a mechanism for external companies to explore, extract and export the tribe’s rich supply of natural resources, particularly oil, coal, uranium, gas and water. This economic structure has not led to sustainable development of the Navajo economy. The once thriving Navajo agricultural entrepreneurial economy declined, and when industries closed, corporations took profits and jobs with them, leaving Navajo Nation with a degraded landscape, impaired health, and staggering unemployment.
Fifty years ago the Navajo Nation’s agricultural sector was made up of small family farms and ranches that produced organic food for tribal members’ subsistence needs and for local markets. Today, Navajo Nation is one of the largest food deserts in America. Although most families retain small herds of livestock (cattle and sheep) for supplemental income, the majority of the old farms lay idle, and few families rely on farming and ranching for their living.
We are seeing renewed interest in rebuilding Navajo farms and ranches into sustainable agricultural businesses to meet a growing local demand for fresh, healthy meat and produce. Producers want to grow for market, but many need a boost to get into production and learn the business side of the enterprise. They see that there is a significant market on Navajo Nation and also for traditional Navajo grown products off-reservation.
We sit on the largest food desert in the United States. Only 13 on-reservation grocery stores serve Navajo Nation’s 27,000 square miles, with the closest to our project area in Dilkon, Arizona. Community members travel there or sometimes to Winslow or Flagstaff to purchase food, anywhere from a 60 to 130-mile round trip. We are seeing new farmers markets opening up in our area to meet some local demand for food during the growing season. In some areas of Navajo Nation, convenience stores are dedicating some of their shelves to locally produced food, and there is potential for grocery stores to do the same. Schools, senior centers, and health care institutions could be reliable local markets for locally produced foods, but there are few that buy from local sources. New farmers markets are springing up in response to demand for fresh, local foods, but frequently have more demand than supply of local products for sale. There is a gap to fill and local producers see it.
Model-Based Regenerative Agriculture
We have partnered with Indian Dispute Resolution Services and Diné College Land Grant Office to develop and implement our Workshops, Technical Assistance, and our Small Farm Incubator program. Instead of having beginning farmers isolated and struggling on their own to succeed will provide them with the opportunity to learn and work together with a cohort of other beginning farmers. These cohorts will receive a core training program in organic farming and business development. They will be “incubated” on the site where they will supported for up to five years until they are ready to go out on their own. We expect this to increase the chance of their success while restoring in their communities Diné cultural values, practices and relationships of hard work, cooperation and self-reliance as they strengthen local food systems and improve community health.
Our Sihasin Garden is a demonstration and learning site to teach the basics of market farming and gardening. This year, we are hosting over 40 workshops at our site and at farms and gardens within our region. We are working on strengthening local Diné and Hopi trainers to develop culturally grounded Diné Farmer Training Curriculum. This curriculum is a centerpiece in our strategy. It shall incorporate the experiences, traditional wisdom, place-based knowledge, and best practices of local farmers, and will be blended with the best offerings of contemporary organic and agro-ecological farm training programs.
Small Farm Incubator
We are currently developing an 8-acre model teaching and incubator farm at North Leupp Family Farm that has in place the physical infrastructure to support the production of organic produce and be financially successful, including:
- cost-effective shallow alluvial water and solar powered pumps;
- an irrigation system
- water storage system
- cropping systems that improve soil fertility
- diverse sustainable year round
- essential farm implements, equipment and facilities
Regenerative Agriculture Initiatives
The Cameron Farm Enterprise initiative will demonstrate and prove out effective, productive, and profitable community-based farming for the Dine chapters along the Little Colorado River and other major river and washes of the LCR watershed.
In partnership with Dine’ Hózhó & Cooperative Catalysis of New Mexico, we are in the process of forming a Navajo owned co-operative non-profit for the benefit of Navajo agricultural, ranching, and craft producers. Cooperative activities are a natural part of the Navajo social structure. The co-op members are planning on conducting a test launch of the Navajo Lamb product later this year.
Learn more at NavajoLamb.com
These initiatives are being undertaken by people who are developing backyard gardens, small family farms, cooperatives, and nonprofit organizations. They are growing produce to meet their own subsistence needs, for barter and exchange, and to sell in the local market (e.g. farmers markets, schools, other feeding programs and institutions). At this point, the network is informal but the participants are showing an increasing interest in greater coordination and in giving the network more definition and substance. It has the potential of becoming the community based “engine” that will be the primary builder of the organic agricultural sector. The farmers in the network can provide each other needed support. They already possess a range of skills and knowledge that they are willing to share with one another. They can also become the local political constituency that helps ensure that local government policies are favorable to the concerns of local small farmers and businesses.