Native American farmers fight for representation in Arizona

By Emma Green

With just under 21 million acres of indigenous farmland, Arizona is home to the largest concentration of Native American farmers and ranchers in the United States. These farms make up nearly 80 percent of all farmland in Arizona, producing close to $67 million dollars’ worth of agricultural products in 2012, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

Data showing total farm operations and share of Native American principal operators from the 2012 Census of Agriculture via University of Arizona. (Graphic by Emma Green/PIN Bureau)

Although members of these traditional cultures are recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau as the majority of primary farm operators in the state, native communities are still largely without representation when it comes to state and federal agricultural bodies.

“In over 100 years, we’ve never had a Native American member on the governing board,” said Gary Nabhan, agrarian activist, ethnobiologist and chair of the Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Now, after nearly two years, the Arizona Department of Agriculture is moving forward with its promise to provide Native American farmers and ranchers a place in its department. In 2015, Mark Killian, the director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture promised to establish a Native American Advisory Council, calling for quarterly meetings with tribal representatives from around the state.

“We are planning to sit down and talk to the leaders of different tribes in Arizona to see what’s happening in their world, how we can help, what kind problems they’re facing,” said Laura Oxley, public information officer and ‎chief of legislative, policy and community affairs at the Arizona Department of Agriculture. “All agriculture is important in the state, and we really want to work with our Native American partners for agriculture, so we’re starting regular meetings with leaders of the tribes and the first one will be in May.”

In February 2016, more than 100 farmers, ranchers, food activists, tribal educators and agricultural academics met at the University of Arizona to sign a petition urging Killian for an increase in “tribal, racial and multi-cultural representation” in the Department of Agriculture, according to Nabhan.

Reservation agriculture is diverse and the volume and function of native farms varies widely. In addition to using land for small and large scale commercial operations, tribal land is often leased to non-Native American farmers. Many family farms produce for home and local consumption.

Terry and Ramona Button of Ramona Farms located on the Gila River Indian reservation. (Photo by Emma Green)

Terry and Ramona Button, owners and operators of Ramona Farms located on the Gila River Indian Community, harvest 7,000 acres of reservation land, using revenue from their commercial farming operation to grow native tepary beans.

Button said the farm’s biggest challenge is generating enough revenue to subsidize the cost of growing and harvesting native and organically certified produce.

“For us to be able to sell our product it has to be an economically viable operation,” said Terry Button. “If people don’t appreciate it enough to pay for it, because it doesn’t grow as cheaply as all this factory produced stuff, then we can’t do it. If you can’t market it … and can’t make a living doing it, it’s not going to continue.”

According to a report by the University of Arizona College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, the lack of access to technical and financial resources is often a hindrance to the advancement of a native farmer’s “contributions to the state’s and the nation’s food security.”

The report also cites the establishment of a Council for Native American Farming and Ranching by the USDA, “which currently includes one Navajo farmer-rancher from New Mexico among its 15 appointed members, but no representatives from tribal communities within Arizona itself.”

Clayton Harvey at “The People’s Farm” on the White Mountain Apache reservation. The lettuce grown in this shade house is sent to the Rainbow Treatment Center, the tribal drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. (Photo courtesy Angelo Baca)

Clayton Harvey is garden and greenhouse manager of Ndee Bikiyaa, “The People’s Farm,” on the White Mountain Apache reservation. He said that, in the past, his interaction with the ADA has been minimal.

“It shows that they don’t have a direct working relationship with Native American farmers,” Harvey said, “which is pretty ironic because farming is our livelihood. Not only does it play a huge role in our daily lives but in our traditions, our ceremonies, our prayers, our identities. It’s more of a cultural tie than a business.”

ADA director Killian has historically expressed concern with adding a new member to the state’s agricultural governing board, indicating that any new addition would require a significant statutory change within the department. He also noted that much of the agricultural activity on tribal land is done by lease to non-native farmers.

As a legislatively established, governor-appointed body, the governing board’s role is to assist the department director with reviewing agricultural policies and formulating administrative rules.

Advisory councils do not provide any formal governing authority within the department but serve to make recommendations and offer key knowledge and information.

Gardens, shade tunnel and high tunnel at “The People’s Farm” on the White Mountain Apache reservation.
(Photo courtesy Elizabeth Hoover)

Up until 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau counted all farms on the same reservation as single operations, causing “major underrepresentation” among native farming populations in the United States, according to the Arizona Farm Bureau. In 2007, the Census changed its method to recognize individual producers, resulting in the number of Native American farmers in Arizona more than doubling and creating a 28 percent increase to the overall number of farms statewide.

“There’s a lot of stereotyping of Native Americans and of their communities,” said Clayton Brascoupe, director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association and owner and operator of a small farm in Tesuque, New Mexico. “Maybe people don’t even think that we’re in existence or that we’re farmers or interested in farming. But we are very underrepresented, and I’m not a politician but I think our tribal representatives need to make sure that we do have state or federal representation in the field of agriculture.”

Working with the Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations, the Arizona Department of Agriculture is sending letters of invitation to tribal leaders throughout the state with plans to conduct its first meeting in May.