IDRS works with tribes and Native community-based organizations to increase their capacity to develop and deliver training programs and other support programs to help community members start and grow small farm operations. Community based farming is an important tool to increase food sovereignty, help preserve and restore traditional farming practices, and provide economic development where jobs and other sources of income are scarce. IDRS began its project on the Navajo Nation, partnering with Tolani Lake Enterprises.
IDRS and Tolani Lake Enterprises Team-Up to
Restore the Navajo Nation’s Agricultural Sector
The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country covering 27,413 square miles and faces the daunting task of supporting a population of more than 250,000 people where unemployment ranges between 65% to 80% and over 55% of the people fall below the poverty level. The Nation currently relies on an economy primarily built around the extraction, export and sale of natural resources such as coal, uranium, gas and water. This reliance makes the Tribe extremely vulnerable to the regular ups and downs of a volatile national market and restrictive federal regulations. To provide a more stable economic future for its citizens, and provide access to healthier foods, an effort to revive the agriculture sector is underway.
Fifty years ago, the Navajo Nation had an agricultural sector made up of small family farms and ranches producing organic food. Today, almost 75% of these farms are idle. In the absence of locally grown healthy foods, people have adopted diets of processed foods heavily laden with sugar and carbohydrates. The result is widespread obesity and an alarming epidemic of diabetes and related costly health problems among the Navajo people.
In recent years, there has been signs of a renewed interest in organic farming as demonstrated by an increasing number of small organic gardens and farming initiatives in a number of Navajo communities. The resurgence of farming is moving in the right direction but will have limited growth potential unless there is an infrastructure to encourage, co-ordinate and provide grassroots farmers essential support services and resources.
IDRS has joined forces with a coalition of community based organizations committed to promote food sovereignty and small organic farming throughout the Navajo Nation. We are bringing our experience and expertise in supporting reservation economic development, in providing small business training and development, and facilitating decision making and action planning to help the Tribe restore its agricultural sector.
The coalition has embarked on pursuing two primary objectives:
(1) organizing aspiring organic farmers into mutual support groups, and training and supporting these “cohorts” for a period of up to five years on “incubator” farms
(2) developing an intermediary institution between tribal government and the grass-roots farmers who will develop, coordinate and operate programs, support services and activities.
To meet these objectives the coalition will create a hands-on bi-lingual and bi-cultural training curriculum that combines traditional knowledge with modern scientific know-how. Additional activities include the development of a technical assistance/mentorship program, a farm equipment and implement lending/leasing program, a revolving small business development loan program and a marketing mechanism that operates farmers markets and sells locally produced organic produce directly to some 240 Navajo public school lunch programs.
Our overall strategy is modeled after a highly successful bi-lingual and bi-cultural program (ALBA), operating in the Salinas Valley in California since 2001. ALBA and a small network of associated organizations have been effectively transitioning Mexican American farmworkers there to organic farming. We are modifying and adapting the ALBA model to meet the requirements of the Navajo culture and geographical environment.