Navajo Pride

The third week of the field school, which will be spent exploring the Four Corners region of New Mexico and Arizona, began at the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) just south of Farmington. On our way to NAPI, we stopped for lunch at the desolate Angel Peak Scenic Area, a part of the beautiful San Juan Basin Badlands. The students were kind enough to indulge my geology-related tendencies and even pretended to be impressed with the scenery – and the picnic lunch, for that matter.

As we approached NAPI Headquarters from the east, we left the dusty pastel desert behind us and entered a geometric landscape of green center-pivot irrigated fields. Steel grey water towers and pumping stations dotted the lush terrain, which was dissected by lines of shimmering blue canals. A noticeable barren spot in the verdant landscape was the NAPI Feedyard, a 10,000-head cattle operation leased by the Brazilian multinational meat company, JBS. For many of us in the group, this was our first opportunity to get up close and personal with industrial scale agriculture.

Upon our arrival at NAPI we were ushered into the boardroom, where our tour guide, Robbie, gave us a brief overview of the facility’s history: In the early 1960s, construction of the Navajo Dam was completed on the upper San Juan River and subsequently, the US Congress authorized the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP). NIIP consists of a series of 70 miles of canals, tunnels and siphons (plus another 300 miles of lateral canals) that deliver water from the Navajo Dam to the 110,630 acres of irrigable land known as NAPI. NAPI was created by the Navajo Tribal Council in 1970, in order to provide a “self-sustaining, profitable and culturally and environmentally sensitive farming and agricultural processing business for the benefit of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo workforce, and regional and national economies.” NAPI does not exclusively employ Navajo; a small percentage of NAPI’s fields are leased to outside contractors.

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At the Operations & Maintenance (O&M) Department we met manager Lionel Haskie, who described the irrigation system in some depth. We saw the computer systems that remotely manage the complex water distribution from the canals to the fields, and learned about the nightly water orders that each farmer must submit to the O&M control center (which are then relayed to the Bureau of Reclamation office at the Dam). NAPI has an annual diversion right of 508,000 acre-feet of water from Navajo Dam, although on average just 100,000 to 200,000 acre-feet per year are used. Only 70,000 of the 110,630 acres are currently being cultivated, and complete build out of the remaining acreage will occur during the upcoming decades. Upon completion, the NIIP canals will be owned and operated solely by the Navajo Nation (rather than by the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs).

Next we visited the onsite lab, where crops are tested for quality and analyzed for various nutritional components. Numerous crops are grown by NAPI, including alfalfa, wheat, potatoes, barley, corn, beans, squash and chile. These crops are sold nationally and internationally through corporations like Del Monte, Purina, Campbell’s, Frito Lay and Wal-Mart. NAPI even has contracts to sell pinto and black beans to Cuba, as the Navajo Nation is not bound by the US embargo. Ironically, it is rather difficult for the Navajo themselves to access the food that is grown at NAPI.

Last, we toured the bean plant, where pinto beans are shelled, dried and stored in silos so that they can be sorted, packaged and shipped year round. Bean crop manager Roselyn Yazzie described her lifetime involvement in agriculture at NAPI, and her belief in the quality of the Navajo Pride brand. She was extremely proud that the Navajo Pride beans were being sold through Wal-Mart (so, Wal-Mart does sell local products!). The bean fields were being planted during our visit, and Roselyn agreed to let us see the process in action. Large tractors pulling planters 12 rows wide were traversing the sandy orange fields as we arrived. NAPI plants 6,000 acres of beans dryland agriculture style, meaning that these fields are not irrigated but rather depend on rainfall to be productive.

Our visit to NAPI exceeded all of my expectations, and forced me to take a step back and reconsider a number of my preconceived notions about industrial-scale agriculture. Here’s what I came away thinking:

  1. Industrial agriculture is “local.”
  2. There is a lot of pride, care and personal investment that goes into farming at a large scale, just as there is when farming at a much smaller scale.
  3. Industrial scale agriculture creates specialized skills (as opposed to holistic knowledge), compelling everyone to work as a team in order to get the best results.
  4. Employees can be paid fair, living wages to produce a high-quality product.
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