Reviving Navajo Farming after the Gold King Mine Spill
The Gold King Mine Spill in 2015 caused a sudden decline in agriculture activity among Navajo crop producers and consumers. During the spill, crop growth was disrupted due to partial contamination of our irrigation systems from the mine spill. Producers and volunteers worked relentlessly to save the crops, but few succeeded because the irrigation canals, which feed the crops, were shut down for roughly three weeks, leaving farmers with few alternative options to irrigate crops. Because the spill occurred at the height of the summer growth season, 95% of Navajo farmers lost 100% of their crops for the season.
Since the spill, it has been challenging to address the impacts of the spill, particularly to the agriculture industry. For the Navajo people, is have been especially difficult to restore the confidence in Navajo producers and consumers. This is the problem our organization is committed to solving. As producers, we experience first-hand, the concerns and negativity our customers communicate. We want to change these doubtful concerns and attitudes back to an appreciative and positive relationship with our traditional crops. We are proposing a campaign project of sorts that will re-assure Navajo farmers and consumers that the quality of our water source for our crop irrigation has been at pre-spill levels since early 2016. This will help our community immensely, because to date, there has not been follow through with the many government organizations and academic institutions that conducted water quality tests when the spill initially occurred. No Navajo-led organization has specifically addressed and carried out tangible hard evidence directly to Navajo farmers and consumers. Being a Navajo organization that works directly with students, the farming community, ranchers, and higher education, we have the potential to have a positive impact on Navajo agriculture by boosting producer/consumer confidence, thereby, increasing farming activity, which helps sustain our traditional foods and culture, and last but not least restore our immediate food economy.
The biggest barrier in our project reaching more people is the lack of outreach efforts and commitment by organizations that come into our communities to complete their studies mainly to benefit themselves. There are plenty of studies and data, but this information does not get to the farmers and consumers who need the evidence to prove their crops are safe for consumption.
The project we are proposing is to revive our farming community and extend that to the greater Navajo Nation who rely on us for their source of traditional foods such as heirloom squash, melons, and corn. This will be done by conducting water tests, gathering data from pre-spill, providing data and translating the data to layman terms so that it is user friendly to farmers and consumers.
Our solution's stage of development:Pilot
Where our project is located:Nenahnezad, NM, USA
How we use technology in our project:
This project will be an existing ancestral technology with a high-tech twist. Ideally, we will make a compilation of historical information about each of our heirloom seeds and the tributaries that fed the crop fields of our ancestors, to present day. Then we will take the water science/contamination data from as far back as we can get, through the time of the mine spill up to present day and compile that into another data system. Finally, we will develop a mobile app that will be accessible to any interested parties.
What makes our project innovative:
Our project is innovative because it is initiated and carried out by a Navajo-led farming education organization. Numerous studies and data on the effects of the mine spill have been collected but has not been transcribed into layman terms for the end-user. Being a Navajo farming organization, we have the ability and capacity to reach out to all of our neighboring farmers, follow-up with them and maintain communication and ongoing relationships. This positively impacts our farming community and energizes our agriculture economy.
How our project will be accessible and affordable to our community:
We will distribute our information in Navajo and English through chapter house (town hall) meetings, partnering schools, swap meets where produce is sold, farmers markets, and through our app. Students and volunteers will help us to disseminate the information in the form of presentations with pamphlets. As a non-profit organization, we will partner with chapter houses to subsidize the cost to farmers to use the app, if needed.
We are currently serving 50 people with our project by offering access to our farm for educational purposes as well as a water quality testing site. The population is 100% Navajo, with the immediate population consisting of 55 small plot farmers who produce mostly alfalfa, Indian corn, squash and melons. They are currently affected by our project because we are maintaining our source of water quality information from academic institutions and government entities.
Our future project goals:
Our goal is to continue providing information and access to past and present Navajo farming teachings. We will continue to teach and partner with tribal high schools and colleges to preserve our culture and language through farming education. Through our partnerships, we integrate modern thought and technology inspired by traditional teachings. We are open to expanding to other like-minded communities, such as neighboring Pueblo tribes and communities that value cultural exchange. We want our project to continue to reach the end-consumers of our produce, in order to revitalize our food production and traditional knowledge connected to our foods.
Highlights from our project:
This academic school year we have gained the interest of two local high schools and one tribal college to conduct water tests and create databases for our project. Our community has a working relationship with an agriculture scientist who is committed to improving farming conditions in our community. His input is critical to our project and we are excited to work with him. Our organization has partnered with Tocabe Restaurant and Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, and presented our food revitalization efforts at the United Nations. Recently, we have confirmed a visit to our farm from the MIT Terrascope program in late March.
Why we are applying to Solve:
We are applying to Solve because we are seeking all the support we can get, especially from STEM-based organizations, to carry out and deliver our data and product. Working with high school and junior college students, we are educators and influencers who offer access to a farm where students can discover and hopefully pursue future careers in STEM. A collaboration with MIT would solidify our emphasis on the sciences, while offering insurmountable guidance and resources to make our project notably successful.
The organizations we are currently working with:
Our team is comprised of: a hydrologist redesigning and upgrading our community irrigation system; an agricultural scientist who has worked with Navajo farmers for more than 10 years; a professional chef committed to farm-to-table foods for his school kitchen; a retired teacher turned farmer and agriculture instructor who lectures in Navajo and English; and approximately 30 science and tech students and teachers.
Currently we are working with Navajo Preparatory School (International Baccalaureate), Diné College Lang Grant Program, Navajo Technical University, Tocabe Restaurant, Mitsitam Native Foods Café-Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Native Americans in Philanthropy, and Flower Hill Institute.
Organizations we would like to partner with:
We would like to work with: Tribal Colleges and Universities to teach traditional knowledge through foods and integrate modern technology to preserve and sustain our cultures and languages; First Nations Development Institute, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation to share our model of working with Native American students by offering access to traditional ways of learning, combined with science and technology, while serving our communities as influencers and educators.