Writer: Kevin Robinson-Avila
SAN FELIPE PUEBLO - Until recently, Candelario Sanchez of San Felipe Pueblo drove hundreds of miles every week to sell fruit and vegetables at markets in northern New Mexico.
"I used to drive all the way to San Juan just to sell corn," Sanchez said. "I was on the road all the time."
But now, Sanchez sells all his produce at a local market that San Felipe Pueblo established in 2002.
"With the market right here, I'm earning like twice as much as before," Sanchez said. "It's eliminated my transportation costs, and there's no vendor fee to sell here."
Like Sanchez, dozens of pueblo growers are benefiting from the new market, and from other tribal programs to shore up agriculture on the reservation. The programs aim to increase family income and help pueblo members reconnect with their cultural roots, said Felice Lucero, farm services program manager.
"One or two generations ago, most of our people made a living off the land, but now the majority work in Albuquerque and other places," Lucero said. "We want to bring agriculture back as a central source of income and as a source of cultural pride."
San Felipe is not alone. Many tribal governments in New Mexico are promoting a return to their agricultural roots, said Gerald Chacon, northern district director for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
"Native American culture is firmly grounded in agriculture but in recent generations farming has steadily declined," Chacon said. "The tribes want to reverse that trend, not just to promote economic development but to reinforce traditional customs and values."
To assist them, NMSU formed a Tribal Extension Task Force in 2004 that includes leaders from 22 Indian reservations, said Paul Gutierrez, Extension director and associate dean of NMSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics.
"The Task Force is working to reinforce tribal agriculture and provide educational opportunities for youth," Gutierrez said. "Education is critical for tribal members to develop the know-how and leadership skills to preserve agriculture in the long term."
Extension specialists are helping tribes statewide. This spring, Extension fruit specialist Ron Walser helped Jemez Pueblo plant a 2.5-acre orchard with hundreds of fruit trees, grape vines and berry plants. Walser helped install state-of-the-art irrigation, and he's teaching innovative growing techniques, such as pruning, using trellis systems to increase yields and incorporating organic weed and pest controls.
"Farming has declined immensely at Jemez Pueblo, but we're working to revive it," said Steve Blodgett, head of Jemez Pueblo's Resource Protection Department. "We want to promote sustainable economic development projects that reinforce traditional values and cultural heritage, and the orchard is a key part of that."
In November, Extension will launch a new beef quality assurance program at most pueblos. Specialists will teach Native American ranchers about proper vaccination and herd health, feed programs, animal genetics, record keeping, range management and marketing, said Edmund Gomez, head of Extension small farm programs. It will benefit tribes with small and large herds, ranging from just 150 head at Cochiti Pueblo to 2,000 head at Isleta.
And, this spring, Extension will help the Ramah Navajo Chapter increase vegetable production with solar-heated cold frames that extend the growing season.
At San Felipe Pueblo, Extension is helping to increase forage crops.
"They planted sorghum-sudan grasses in 2003 based on our recommendation," said agricultural specialist Del Jimenez. "Those are fast-growing, drought-tolerant legumes that are good for crop rotation with alfalfa."
Jimenez and other agents are teaching workshops on topics such as tractor safety and maintenance, soil testing and using plastic row covers and other techniques to extend the growing season.
The tribe now grows about 100 acres of alfalfa and alternative forage worth about $260,000 annually, Lucero said. In addition, the pueblo plans to grow blue corn and other varieties for off-reservation sales.
To increase alfalfa production on individual plots, the tribe assists pueblo growers in planting and harvesting their fields, Lucero said.
"We plow fields and plant alfalfa for growers for a nominal fee, and we often harvest and bale alfalfa for them," Lucero said. "We provide consulting and technical assistance on everything."
Candelario Sanchez said growers really take advantage of those services. "The pueblo plows and seeds our lands for just $15 an acre," Sanchez said. "It's so cheap everybody signs up for it. They need more workers out there to handle all the requests."
The farm services program and the growers market have greatly increased agricultural production, with about half the pueblo's 3,000 members now growing vegetables and legumes, Lucero said.
Many people who already grew for home consumption are now diversifying and expanding production to sell at the growers market.
"I've been growing vegetables all my life, but I never tried to sell anything before," said Juan Rey Sandoval, a retired construction worker. "I began selling when they started the market. It helps a lot. I'm making out pretty well."
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