Native American Agriculture seeks sustainability - Tayler Brown, AZ PBS Cronkite News

Native American Agriculture seeks sustainability
Tayler Brown, AZ PBS Cronkite News


Ahhh, one of my favorite examples of the deadening effects of bureaucratic language is back!  “Food insecurity,” 2 words that actually mean one; “hunger.”  The official measure of what our government calls “food insecurity” is the frequency with which people go without food.

According to a 2014 academic study, “Food insecurity rates on the Navajo Nation are the highest reported to date in the in the USA,” or in common language, the hungriest people in America are the members of the Navajo Nation.

Here is an equally dismal, but likely related fact: diabetes is epidemic among Navajo people, as it is among all Native Americans, who die from diabetes at a rate almost 3 times that of White Americans.  How is that related?  There are scads of studies proving that the best way to prevent diabetes is for families to eat well.  That too many Navajo people do not eat well, that many often don’t eat at all, helps to account for the persistence of deadly diabetes.

The Navajo nutrition gap has several causes, lands that defeat farming, poverty that directs food purchases to what’s cheap and easy, and the replacement of mom and pop stores near the reservation by big American supermarkets.  Unlike the small stores which often featured fresh and locally-produced food, the supermarkets offer cheaper, more easily prepared cans of Spam and canned beans.

For one Native American farmer in Arizona, whose passion has been raising traditional crops of her people like blue corn or the bavi bean, also known as the tepary bean, the arrival of Name-brand superstores has been devastating. “We lost our market,” she says, “when large grocery stores moved in closer to the reservations.”

For Ramona and Terry Button, 90 percent of the income from their farm comes from commercial crops as cotton, wheat and alfalfa.  That’s also true for one of Arizona’s largest Native American owned farms, Gila River Farms, whose 10,000 acres, rotating alfalfa and cotton, generates about $10 million in annual sales.  Who’s buying from this Native American farm?  Ranchers for the alfalfa, manufacturers for the cotton, in the Philippines, Vietnam and China.

So, 2 big tasks for Native American farmers – better feeding the folks at home and better serving new agricultural markets around the world.  And here’s some good news, help is on the way. 

Distribution of money from the Keepseagle settlement, compensation for decades of discrimination against Native Americans by the US Department of Agriculture could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for American Indian farmers and ranchers, and provisions inserted into the recently-passed Farm Bill should mean more Federal grants for Native American food and farm programs at colleges and universities, help in protecting Native American produced goods from fraudulent fakes and help in selling those goods on international markets.   


Tayler Brown is a student at Arizona State University Tempe and reported this story for Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona’s Public Broadcast System.



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