After we get back to our country, it will brighten up again, black clouds will rise and there will be plenty of rain. Corn will grow in abundance and everything will look happy. Barboncito, 19th century Navajo leader
Four sacred mountains representing the four primary Navajo clans look down on Navajo Nation land and the green blanket that seems to almost magically shroud the high mesa desert south of Farmington.
"We're probably the largest single-owned farm in the world," says Buddy Benally, marketing director of the 63,000-acre Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) farm. When it is fully developed to its planned 110,000-acre capacity, the farm will be larger than the entire Mesilla Valley.
From its location in the Four Corners region-near where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet at a single point-the farm supplies industry giants, including Frito-Lay, Campbell's, Del Monte, Pillsbury and Ralston Purina.
The farm is the progeny of the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, built in 1963 as partial fulfillment of the Treaty of 1868, which created the Navajo Reservation. Irrigation began bringing agricultural life to the desert mesa in 1976 through a series of canals, tunnels, siphons and, today, some 450 center-pivot sprinkler rigs, which irrigate 50 to 200 acres each.
NAPI is the gold mine of the Navajo Nation, says Benally, a two-time NMSU alumnus with a 1981 bachelor's degree in agricultural and Extension education and a 1984 master's degree in agricultural economics. "We're very proud of our farm and we'd like to see the younger generation take over ownership and management in the future." Employing 150 to 200 full-time people, Benally estimates that $8 million of payroll is returned to the local economies.
NAPI's hay cutting and baling are contracted to community businesses, putting no small amount of money back into the local economy, considering that NAPI produces approximately 2 percent of New Mexico's number one crop—alfalfa hay. The state's only certified hay-testing lab is housed on the Navajo farm. "Our lab can test for quality by measuring the nutrients in the plants' leaves," Benally says. High-quality hay can command higher prices.
From September through May, NAPI operates its own fresh-pack potato operation, marketed under the Navajo Pride label. Potatoes from the field and cold storage facilities are washed, inspected, sorted by size and packaged in boxes or plastic bags. 'We can process about 4,000, 100-pound sacks per day," Benally says. Most of the culled potatoes are used as cattle feed in NAPI's on-farm feedlot.
"Forty percent of our 6,300 acres of potatoes is grown strictly for Frito-Lay," he says. The remainder of the crop goes to Campbell's soup, Del Monte canning, and retail outlets across the Southwest. "Campbell's may purchase up to 16 semi-truck loads per week," he says.
With all its acreage, NAPI is able to custom farm for potential clients. "This year, we're growing 200 acres of mint under contract," Benally says. NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, located on the NAPI farm, conducts crop trials and field research to make recommendations to all local farms, large and small.
Known by the Navajos as "Totah," Farmington began as an agricultural settlement of small farmers. "Apple orchards eventually became the municipality of Farmington," says Gary Hathorn, San Juan County Extension director.
Transporting crops to market became easier with the arrival of the railroad in 1905. Soon, such large quantities of apples were being shipped to markets in the Midwest that the railroad became known as the Red Apple Flyer.
Few large orchards still exist today. "The value of agricultural land is increasing because 94 percent of all land in San Juan County is federal, state or tribal" Hathorn says. "There is very little private land available, so it's becoming increasingly more difficult to farm such valuable land."
One of the early apple farmers is still toughing it out-Tom Kerby of Kerby Orchards in Farmington. "We wouldn't be crazy enough to do it if we didn't love it," he says. "We're probably the only orchard left in Farmington. Everyone else is growing houses."
Kerby came to Farmington in 1945 and has been growing apples near the edge of town ever since. "My neighbors told me that I'd never make this place into a farm because the soil was too sandy and rocky," he says. "They'd seen plenty of others try and fail."
Coming from Arizona as a dairy farmer, Kerby brought his dairy heifers with him to the Four Corners. "The first piece of equipment I bought was a manure spreader, and I began incorporating manure from the dairy cows into the soil," he says.
Kerby sees his farm as a bank. "If you make one deposit into a bank and just keep drawing on it, eventually it will be all gone," he says. "But if you keep making deposits, you'll never run out." Kerby's "deposits" include feeding the soil and replanting younger trees to keep the orchard producing.
Kerby and his son, Leslie, grow seven varieties of apples in addition to cherries, nectarines, plums, peaches and pears. The orchards are flood-irrigated from the Animas River.
"We have a cold storage facility that can hold 3,000 boxes of apples to extend our selling season," he says. "We can keep apples at optimum quality for months instead of weeks."
Kerby sells all of his produce directly to consumers, either through on-farm sales or at the local farmers' market. The San Juan County farmers' market operates two days per week from summer through frost. Approx- imately 500 customers visit the market each week, generating more than $5,000 in sales, Hathorn says.
Many of the farmers selling at the market irrigate in the same manner as Kerby, flooding their fields with water from nearby rivers. Much of New Mexico's surface water flows through the Four Corners area, supplied by the Animas, San Juan and La Plata rivers.
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"In fact, some of the earliest irrigation projects originated here," Hathorn says. Ancient puebloan people developed intricate systems for directing water through a series of dams, canals and ditches to irrigate their crops. Today, there are approximately 40 major ditches in San Juan County alone, says Mike Sullivan, president of the county's Agricultural Water Users Association.
The Navajo Dam, completed in 1962, is a major unit of the Colorado River storage project. It regulates the flow of the San Juan River, provides flood control and diverts water to a significant portion of Navajo land.
"Agricultural producers in San Juan County are major water users. Not counting NAPI, local agricultural users divert about 100,000 acre-feet of water from rivers each year," Sullivan says.
But agriculture is not the whole story for the region's water. The Bureau of Reclamation is involved in the San Juan Recovery Project, dealing with endangered species along the river. "Razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow and other endangered fishes require their own portion of water rights," Sullivan says.
Though they're not protected, trout are major players in the Four Corners water game. Downstream from Navajo Dam, the San Juan River is rich in minerals and maintains year-round temperatures from 42 to 45 degrees-ideal conditions for phenomenal trout growth.
"The waters below the dam are ranked fourth in the nation for quality trout fishing," Hathorn says. "The river attracts a number of fly-fishers every day, boosting the local economy."
Rainbow and cutthroat trout average 13 to 20 inches in length. Fish are plentiful and much of the upper river is shallow enough for easy wading.
To protect the interests of all water users, a 40-year water study is planned to determine future needs of various industries. "As our population increases, some water will be consumed by urban growth and industry," Sullivan says. "All of the major players will have to tighten down their water use and implement conservation technologies."
In areas of the Four Corners where surface water is not so abundant, water quality education is vital. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, 13.4 percent of people living on the Navajo Reservation aren't connected to a public water supply or domestic well. The majority of those who do have access to domestic water supplies draw such poor quality water that they opt to haul water from local springs instead.
Recent surveys of tribal officials and Extension agents have identified various water quality problems, including agricultural runoff, inefficient irrigation techniques and limited knowledge of wellhead protection or water pollution prevention.
To meet the needs of the tribal audience, Extension has proposed the New Mexico Tribal Lands/Quality Water Initiative. The three-year program will begin with assessments of local wells and irrigation practices. From there, Extension specialists will design educational activities on water quality and policy directed at homeowners, farmers, ranchers and public policy makers.
The program will not only have a significant effect on immediate water quality issues, but also will positively impact watershed rehabilitation.
"Sustaining an adequate water supply will require input from all users," Sullivan says. "Otherwise, there's a good possibility that the bucket won't be as full in the future as it is now."
From world-class trout fishing in the rivers to Native American ruins and traditional ceremonies, the Four Corners region is home to many attractions that feed the tourism industry.
"Travelers come from all over the world to experience our unique culture," says Melissa Lane with the Farmington Chamber of Commerce. "The people of our communities are what make the Four Corners region tick. They're our most valuable resource."
One of the largest annual events is the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial held in Gallup. Now in its 78th year, the ceremonial is designed to promote and preserve Native American culture, says Zonnie Gorman, ceremonial program director. "By virtue of what we represent, Native American cultures are dynamic, living, breathing cultures, not static pieces of history."
Each August, 20,000 to 30,000 visitors attend the three-day ceremonial, which includes traditional dance competitions, artisan exhibits and an all-Indian professional rodeo.
Gorman's first involvement with the ceremonial was as a dancer. "I danced for 22 years before becoming the program director," she says. "My sons' first appearances at the ceremonies were on cradle boards while I danced."
Even when the ceremonies have ended, visitors still travel to New Mexico's northwest to search for silver jewelry, woven rugs, pottery and coiled baskets. There are no "off seasons" for tourism in the Four Corners. "We have wonderful weather and year-round interest," Lane says.
San Juan County serves as the region's trade center. Conveniently accessible to shoppers in all four states, the county's retail sector draws from a pool of 250,000 consumers, Lane says. "The Four Corners fits the bill for many people."
The connection of these people with the water, land and culture is as unique as the connection of the four states. Barboncito's words are ringing true. Everything looks happy.