USDA reports Arizona has the largest concentration of Indian farms

Darrell Yazzie, farmer with Tolani Lake Enterprises.  Darrell began farming as a child in Klagetoh, Arizona with his mother. While attending Diné College, he interned for two years with the land grant office, where he learned new farming techniques each semester. He now works full-time at Tolani Lake Enterprises in collaboration with the Diné College extension program. (Photo Amber N. Benally)

Lee Allen

Navajo Nation counties account for close to two-thirds of the state’s total farms at 14,500 and 95 percent of farms and ranches are family-owned

Statistics show Arizona now has the largest concentration of Indian farms anywhere in the U.S.

Specifically, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Census of Agriculture shows Arizona as the only state in the nation in which more than half of all farmers and ranchers are American Indians.

American Indians began farming in North America some 7,000 years ago raising squash, sunflowers, and sump weed until maize agriculture came along in the form of The Three Sisters — corn, squash, and beans.

Ronalda Thomas
Ronalda Thomas began farming with her mother and grandmother in Shonto, Arizona and went on to volunteer at North Leupp Family Farms. She recently joined Tolani Lake Enterprises full-time as the food literacy intern, promoting locally grown herbs and vegetables at community workshops. (Photo and description courtesy Amber N. Benally, Grand Canyon Trust.)

In the Southwest, Indigenous agriculture is recorded some 4,000 years ago when cultigens arrived in the region via traders from Mexico.

“Reservation agriculture is a significant part of the size and scope of the state’s agriculture,” reports the USDA. “Of the more than 19,000 farms in the 2017 census, a good percentage are tended to by producers belonging to the tribes and nations in Arizona.”

Navajo Nation counties (Apache, Coconino, Navajo) account for close to two-thirds of the state’s total farms (14,500) and ninety-five percent of those farms and ranches are family-owned.

Native Farmers - Ramona Farms
Pima Club Wheat being harvested at Ramona Farms. (Courtesy Ramona Farms)Photo via Ramona Farms

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics: “Reservation agriculture here is not one-size-fits-all because some tribes lease agricultural land to non-Indian farmers and some tribal members grow small acreages of crops or raise small livestock herds as sustenance.”

What also sets the Navajo Nation farming numbers apart from other domestic operations is the predominance of female operators. Over half the Navajo farms had a principal operator who was female (compared to 14 percent of farms in other states).

“While it seems like we have so many farmers who are Native American, and we do, the majority are subsistence farmers growing for their family and neighbors,” said Julie Murphree, Outreach Director for the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation.

“Culturally, it is the most amazing story around. Economically, individual farmer numbers are amazing, but the economic contribution is small. We do have some large tribal farms run by tribal leaders, but the economic aggregate is nominal.”

In the last agriculture census, Native farms sold close to $67 million worth of agricultural products, just under 2 percent of the state’s $3.7 billion total for agricultural commodities. That figure averaged out to approximately $6,000 per Native farm in Arizona.

Regardless of whether food is being grown for commercial resale or within a community for family and friends, it’s good the trend continues as its knocking down food insecurity in the state. Not having access to nutritious and affordable food is improving, now at its lowest level in a decade, although one in four children still don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

“In 2015,” according to USDA, “Nearly 15 percent of Arizona households were considered food insecure, a figure that has now dropped to 12.4 percent (although thousands of free Food Bank meals a day are still distributed).

Two Native American farms are located in the Indian community of Sacaton — Gila River, with over 10,000 acres of cotton and alfalfa as well as wheat, barley, olives, and citrus orchards, and the family-owned Ramona Farms, specializing in the restoration of the historic tepary bean, a staple food for several tribes.

While the larger portion of their acreage holds commercial crops like cotton, alfalfa, and wheat, there is set-aside acreage for the bavi bean.

Ramona Farms - Bavi bean
Ramona Farms, at their Gila River reservation farm in Sacaton, Arizona, is run by Ramona and Terry Button. Their farm offers wheat berries, wheat flours (pilkan chu’i) and corn products (huun) along with the other offerings, the family’s production centerpiece is the tepary (phaseolus acutifolius), native to Mexico and the western U.S. and grown there since pre-Columbian times. (Photo: Lee Allen)

The Hualapai Nation’s Philip Bravo has been in livestock all his life, growing up on a family ranch in Peach Springs and raising cows with his grandfather in Chino Valley where they grew alfalfa to feed the livestock. He has served on the Arizona Farm Bureau board of directors and is the former president of the Mohave County Farm Bureau.

Philip Bravo
The Hualapai Nation’s Philip Bravo. (Photo courtesy Arizona Farm Bureau)

Bravo says: “I’m 4th generation and while I have more experience with cows than carrots, I’m not just a rancher, I’m also a farmer because if I can’t grow grass, I can’t raise cows.”

A student of history, Bravo says raising crops and/or cattle is a way of life for indigenous peoples. “It’s always been that way because the growing of crops was one of the mainstays in the early days, not only for Natives but for everybody — if you didn’t grow crops, you didn’t survive.”

Bravo works a cow/calf operation with 700 head on an 80,000-acre ranch and his son will be 5th generation. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in my time. It doesn’t surprise me that a majority of farmers and ranchers in Arizona are Native because many small farms are cared for by indigenous peoples, not only to sustain life but to grow crops for ceremonial purposes.

“I’m also noticing more Native women being listed as owners of small farms and ranches and younger people are getting more involved. When I first started in the late 1980s, attendees at conferences would mostly be elderly gentlemen but as technology involvement has increased, so, too, has the number of young people. They’re aware of all this new stuff, taking it home to the farm and ranch and telling dad and grandpa, this is the way we should do it now and I’d like to be a part of it.”

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Lee Allen is a longtime contributor to Indian Country Today who resides and works in Tucson, Arizona.