A vision for the Navajo Nation in one farm’s sustainability

Local businesses keep jobs and money circulating within their communities.

 

This story is part of the State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

When the oil and gas industry takes a dive, or when extractive industries tank, so do economies in rural areas, where a lot of jobs come from drilling, mining and power plants. A business incubator is helping entrepreneurs on the Navajo Nation with the idea that local skills and talents—and cash flowing in and out of local businesses—are key to independence from environmentally damaging corporations. 

There are about a thousand or so residents in Leupp on the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona. They drive about an hour to get to a supermarket with fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmer Stacey Jensen is trying to change that by growing and trading food. “Like for example, I’ll get apricots and peaches from Monavie, Tuba City area, get some beans from Hopi, from the mesas, then down here, Apache, I know they have some really good corn,” he said. “Then we just bring them up and try to create a food hub.”

Listen to this story:

Jensen is envisioning a market on the North Leupp Family Farm. The co-op of local families here grows white, blue and yellow corn, a variety of melons and squash, chile, potatoes, onions, garlic—all with environmentally sensitive practices. “We don’t try and rely on chemical pesticides or herbicides or anything like that,” he said. “Even with our fertilizer. We go to grandma, invade her sheep corral, then we bring all that manure back.”

Betty Kelly is in her 90s and works on the North Leupp Family Farm most days, growing the food she eats all year long.
Marisa Demarco/KUNM

Grandma is Betty Kelly. She is in her 90s, and she works on the farm all season long. She drove up in a big white truck and then sat on a folding chair in the greenhouse for an interview.

She loves to see young people working with the food as it grows here on the farm. She compares raising kids to raising corn, and said they’re both dear to her and give a lot of meaning to her life. You treat seeds like you treat kids, she said, with respect and care.

When she was growing up, she said, gardening was how people ate. It’s part of regional independence and self-reliance. To this day, in her fridge and freezer, she has stacks of produce that she grew here on the farm. That’s how she eats all year long.

But the tradition, Kelly said, isn’t always being passed on.

Melons grown at the North Leupp Family Farm, a nonprofit co-op of more than 30 families in the area.
Marisa Demarco/KUNM

Jessica Stago is with the Native American Business Incubator Network, or NABIN. “If you go back, 30, 40 years ago, this wave of jobs came for our people and revenue into our tribes, which was good.”

She said those jobs came from companies with no real stake in the community. “But now we’re facing the same economic decline, and we’re facing the same depressive economies that we faced 30, 40 years ago.”

The official unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation is at least three times higher than New Mexico’s. And New Mexico’s rate is almost the highest among the 50 states.

NABIN says part of the solution here is supporting local entrepreneurs, people like farmer Stacey Jensen, so jobs can spring up, and money can stay on the reservation. The goal is to start 25 businesses every year. Right now, they’re working with about 12.

Stago said economies that rely on certain industries are often based solely on cash and money, but they don’t have to be that way. “Every economy both on and off the reservation can look at how do we go back to just the basics, having food—healthy food—available for the people that live here, and a way for them to sustain their family,” she said.

The last corn stalks at the end of the harvest on the farm.
Marisa Demarco/KUNM

There’s a barter economy at work, too, so getting a solid count of businesses is a challenge. Elaine Young is the manager for the Small Business Development Department in Window Rock. “We don’t capture a lot of the business here on the Navajo Nation, the activities that are going on,” she said. “A lot of our Navajo people still do traditional basketweaving, rug weaving, silversmithing…”

Those skills are learned at an early age, Young said, and it’s hard for folks to understand why they should establish an official business — plus the U.S. government has put a ton of regulatory hurdles on the reservation, so a lot of Navajo entrepreneurs start their businesses in the border towns instead.

Young said encouraging small business here could be a big boost to the economy. “What would change that we’re hoping to see is the unemployment, you will see a difference there, as well as the nation benefiting as a whole, bringing in the sales dollar—just pretty much employing more of our own people.”

Young wants to see the talents and education of tribal members put to use on the Navajo Nation, she said, to create local companies and corporations rather than relying on outside resources.

This is part two in a two-part series on small business on Navajo Nation. Read part one here.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...