GALLUP – When driving north from Gallup on U.S. 491 to Shiprock, passing through the barren, arid terrain, it is hard to imagine fields of corn, squash and beans, and fruit trees thriving in this corridor of northwestern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation’s eastern region.
For decades, Native Americans living in this area grew the traditional Three Sisters – corn, squash and beans.
As the climate has changed in recent years, and access to water has decreased, many families have ceased to raise gardens. Health issues, such as obesity and diabetes, have increased as the access to fresh fruit and vegetables has decreased in the Navajo Nation.
New Mexico State University’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences is working with community leaders and families in the small rural communities along the corridor to bring back the tradition of family gardens. NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service has obtained funding for a program to revive the tradition from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development’s Rural Business Development Grant program and the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments located in Gallup.
“Market Connect is a program to help families, communities and schools develop new gardens,” said Michael Patrick, NMSU Extension specialist and economic development coordinator. “The program will also provide families information on the nutritional value and health benefits of fresh fruit and vegetable consumption.”
The northwest region of New Mexico is a food desert, with the majority of families having little or no access to fresh produce and other affordable healthy foods due to low income and geographical isolation.
“What really opened my eyes was seeing the convenience stores along Highway 491 not having fresh fruits and vegetables on their counters or stands,” said Sharon Sandman of Sheep Springs. “They have replaced the nutritious food with junk food that contains sugar, salt and fats.”
The average drive time to the nearest full-service grocery store providing access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthy foods is 45 minutes.
Sandman began promoting backyard gardens seven years ago to her neighbors, family and friends. She met Patrick through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Stronger Economies Together program he coordinates in New Mexico.
“Sharon manages the Market Connect program,” Patrick said. “Her efforts have begun to spark the interest and willingness of families, grandparents, parents and children to work together in the Navajo tradition of producing and consuming healthy food.”
During the 2017 growing season 19 families were raising backyard gardens. Four schools and three chapter houses also had some form of gardens. The program assists the gardeners with fencing, soil supplements, tools, water hoses and drip irrigation lines. An additional grant has provided a hoop house at the Sheep Springs Chapter House garden.
Sandman is working with Jesse Jim, NMSU Tribal Extension agent; Carole Palmer, horticulturalist and food systems specialist with Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment; Sadie Lister, field coordinator for the Native American Producers Success; Wayne Franklin, Navajo Department of Agriculture; and Flix Nez, Dine College in Tsaile, Arizona.
The group conducts horticulture and food preparation and preservation workshops at various locations along the corridor.
To provide access to fresh produce, Market Connect has launched dedicated farmers’ markets at local chapter houses.
“Two of these farmers’ markets were created in Sheep Springs and Naschitti,” Patrick said. “Six producers provided produce to Sheep Springs and four to Naschitti. The produce was sold out at both markets. Proceeds for the gardening families, though modest, made a big difference to them.”
An additional economic development incentive the program provides is giving families a chance to learn business skills and marketing of the products they grow themselves and gaining education to continue the farming after the project ends.
“In addition, the gardening families all reported that they themselves were eating more fresh produce,” said Sandman. “The program is helping to reestablish an important tradition of our culture.”