NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

NMSU Garden for Health project strives to return gardening into Navajo lifestyle

CROWNPOINT, N.M. On a mesa in Crownpoint, overlooking the sun-parched, wind-blown land of the Navajo Nation, a garden is sprouting.

NMSU Tribal Extension agent Jesse Jim, left, and Alysse Pablo, lab assistant at NMSU Agricultural Science Center in Farmington, work on the irrigation system at the Garden for Health demonstration garden in Crownpoint. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

New Mexico State University's Tribal Extension and the Agricultural Science Center of Farmington is helping the Crownpoint Boys and Girls Club to raise a garden as a demonstration of the Garden for Health project.

The Garden for Health project is introducing gardening back into the Navajo lifestyle to improve wellness. Gardening for sustenance and as a hobby has been lost across the United States, not just in the Navajo Nation. However, the loss of traditional lifestyle activities, such as gardening, and the introduction of processed foods have had a greater negative impact on the health of the indigenous people.

"Diabetes is a serious health problem in the Navajo Nation," said Kevin Lombard, NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences horticulturalist in Farmington. "There is a correlation between diabetes and associated cardiovascular disease with the lack of fresh vegetables and fruit in a person's diet."

Scientific evidence indicates that diabetes among all groups, not just the Navajo, is largely a result of shifting lifestyles to include a reduction in consuming fruit and vegetables, and exercise habits. Studies show that individuals with diabetes are more likely to be sedentary and are more likely to suffer premature death related to cardiovascular disease than their non-diabetic counterparts.

"A huge concern is the number of children, adolescents, and young adults who are receiving diagnoses of diabetes," Lombard and colleague Sue Foster-Cox of the College of Health and Social Services' Department of Health wrote in an article entitled "Diabetes on the Navajo Nation: What role can gardening and agriculture extension play to reduce it?"

The article appears in Rural and Remote Health, an international electronic journal of rural and remote health research, education, practice and policy. Dan Smeal and Mick O'Neill, of the Farmington science center, also contributed.

In the article, the authors reviewed the contributing factors to the lack of fresh vegetables in the Navajo diet, such as poverty and remoteness of communities on the reservation, where it is difficult to purchase fresh produce.

The article proposed gardening as a source for fresh vegetables and fruit to improve diets.

It also explained how drip irrigation and hoop houses could help gardens survive in the harsh climate of the Four Corners region.

"Gardening can help. Nutritious fruits and vegetables can be produced closer to home in an individual or community setting," Lombard said. "This would increase consumption, enable physical activity in daily gardening practices, and raise rural household income by eliminating some grocery purchases while providing the potential to sell excess produce in a farmers' market approach."

Funds to promote the Garden for Health concept to the Navajos have been provided by the U-54 Partnership for the Advancement of Cancer Research partnership between the National Cancer Institute, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and NMSU.

"During the first year of the funding we focused on networking with key people on and adjacent to the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation to assess deficiencies and avoid duplication of efforts," Lombard said. Representatives from various agencies and organizations working to address the diabetes issue were among those polled.

"The second year, we conducted focus group surveys to determine the grass roots interest and perceptions about gardening among the Navajos," he said.

The elders, who were surveyed, remembered gardening as part of the lifestyle in the past. They mentioned that their parents and grandparents actively gardened and that it was a tradition at one time, but is no longer widely practiced.

"A large percentage of all who were surveyed wanted to get back into the practice of gardening; some mentioned they were not sure how to go about it," Lombard said. "They realized that while gardening seems simple, there is a level of knowledge that comes from experience. They said they have lost that knowledge and asked for technical assistance."

One of the first groups to ask for assistance is the Crownpoint Boys and Girls Club. Kristen Willie, coordinator of the club's programs, said the club has had a garden for about five years, but last year no plants grew.

Willie asked advice from Jesse Jim, NMSU Tribal Extension agent, who has worked with the club providing nutritional education to the youth. "Jesse offered to help and she contacted Kevin for his assistance," she said.

The expertise provided by NMSU included installing a low-pressure, low-cost drip irrigation system, that Smeal has researched at the Farmington Agricultural Science Center.

The system is ideal for small gardens located in remote areas where water needs to be transported, a reality for many Navajo Nation residents. The design includes a 50-gallon tank, mounted six feet above the ground, where water is stored then released through irrigation lines to drip emitters at each plant. Delivering water directly to the plants eliminates wasting water and decreases the growth of weeds.

The watering system and the use of low-cost hoop houses to extend the growing season were introduced in the Rural and Remote Health article as ways to help gardeners have success.

Youth from the boys and girls club helped prepare the garden's soil, and planted the vegetables. The youth have learned about the importance of eating vegetables and fruits during Jim's weekly nutrition and cooking class.

"We want to show the kids that the produce they see at the grocery store can be grown in their backyard," Jim said. "Also, how the corn we use in our traditional foods is raised. We planted one row of white corn for the kneel-down bread, one row of blue corn for the blue corn mush and one row of yellow for general eating. We also planted other vegetables including tomatoes and melons."

The garden is also a demonstration to the community on how families can grow vegetables. Willie said the youth proudly show their parents that the plants have sprouted. "The parents are interested in the garden," she said. "Maybe they will see that they too can raise a garden."

In addition to modern irrigation and growing season extending technologies, Jim said, "There should be a balance between western and traditional gardening practices. Area elders in Crownpoint are willing to assist youth in learning about traditional Navajo gardening practices."

The project has already sparked the interest of Alysse Pablo, a lab assistant at the Farmington science center. The 22-year-old resident of White Rock, which is located 30 miles from Crownpoint, says she remembers raising a garden when she was younger, but lack of rain caused her family to stop farming.

"With a secure source of water, or water that is hauled, this drip irrigation system would allow us to garden even if we don't get rain," she said while working on the Crownpoint garden's system. "I could see how this could help the people in our community. It would be nice for people to have gardens or at least one at the chapter house where they could receive produce after it's harvested."

The nearest grocery store to White Rock is in Crownpoint. While the store has fresh produce, Pablo said few of her chapter house members buy it. "Hardly anyone has running water or electricity to keep the vegetables cool, and they spoil. It would be nice to have gardens nearby so they could have vine ripened vegetables."

To read the article "Diabetes on the Navajo Nation: What role can gardening and agriculture extension play to reduce it?" go to http://www.rrh.org.au/articles/subviewnew.asp?ArticleID=640
To learn more about the low-pressure, low-cost drip irrigation system, go to http://www.youtube.com/nmsuaces#p/u/35/AZaZht8eDRc