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Desert crops to bloom again on the Tohono O'odham

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SELLS, Ariz. ? A non-profit here has been awarded more than $500,000 in grants to develop a farm devoted to growing traditional foods of the Tohono O'odham tribe.

Tohono O'odham Community Action received three-year grants from the Administration for Native Americans ($395,000) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ($135,000) to return traditional O'odham desert crops like tepary beans, corn, squash, melons and grain sorghum to cultivation.

While the tribe has 4,000 acres under cultivation, it grows cash crops like cotton rather than the traditional foods tribal farmers grew until the first half of the 20th century, said Tristan Reader, co-executive director of TOCA.

With a donated five-year lease on 140 acres of land, the Community Action farm will feature an equipment cooperative to try to strengthen farming interest among tribal members who don't have the necessary capital.

Reader said he hopes to restimulate production of the traditional Tohono O'odham food by tribal members.

He said the scale will be small at first, with three or four acres under cultivation. Marketing priority for the healthy food will be to Tohono O'odham tribal members, who currently suffer the highest rate of diabetes in the world. Reader said he feels the traditional foods' slow sugar release can help fight the diet-related killer.

A secondary marketing emphasis will be to institutions on the Connecticut-sized reservation on the border with Mexico, such as schools, the Indian Health Service hospital and the elderly food program.

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By the end of the third year, Reader said he hopes to have 20 to 25 acres under cultivation. His goal is to plant during the next monsoon season, about nine months from now.

A lot of work needs to be done first. Equipment must be bought, and mesquite trees need to be cleared from the land donated by a family with a tradition of farming.

Reader estimated the farm project will involve two full-time workers and three youth program workers, but added he hopes the community will elect to be involved.

The Tohono O'odham, despite their desert homeland, traditionally were skilled farmers, using flash-flood irrigation conducive to the area's pattern of frequent monsoonal summer rains.

But, since abandoning farming in the 1930s in favor of a more Westernized style and high-fat federal food assistance, the tribe's health and culture has suffered. The halt in farming led to loss of related parts of their culture, like the annual summer ceremony to bring rain for the crops. Abandoning folkways exacerbated the abandonment of tribal language, as well.

Community Action attempted smaller versions of the farm project over the past couple of years, and distributed seeds to Tohono O'odham families to plant in their gardens. Along with Tohono O'odham Community College, it has won grants to study the effect of federal food assistance programs like food stamps, commodities, and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) on the tribe.

Reader and co-executive director Danny Lopez, a Tohono O'odham who teaches at the college, recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to deliver a study of the devastating effects of food assistance and to give 11 recommendations on how to improve the situation using traditional foods.