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The Leading Voices in Food

E83: Hopi Farming – Agriculture, Culture, and Environment in Balance

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
July 28, 2020

Today, we’re digging in to the little known origins of regenerative agriculture, a conservation approach to farming and raising animals that focuses on soil health, biodiversity, improving the water cycle, and resilience to climate change. My guest today is Dr. Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a 450th generation Hopi farmer in the dry lands of Arizona and a research associate with the Native American Agriculture Fund.

Dr. Michael Johnson is a traditional Hopi farmer and practitioner and has given extensive lectures on the topic of Hopi dryland farming – a practice of his people for over two millennia – throughout his academic and professional career. He is also very familiar with conventional agriculture, having received his Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Some of Dr. Johnson’s previous work experience involved agriculture and land related issues at First Nations Development Institute (FNDI) and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ITLF). He holds a Master of Public Policy degree from Pepperdine University. Before receiving his Ph.D. in Natural Resources at the University of Arizona, Dr. Johnson was a Natural Resource District Conservationist assigned to the Hopi Reservation for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Interview Summary

So to begin, can you help our listeners understand the Hopi people’s theological and cultural grounding in what’s now called regenerative agriculture?

When we came here over two millennia ago, we were just given what we call this covenant. We’d be allowed to stay here, but it all would be based upon our faith. We have to have faith in everything we do. And if you were to come out to Hopi, you could understand how difficult it would be to live here and to actually grow things like corn and beans and melons and squash. Our belief system is tied directly to our agriculture. They support each other 100%. So one without the other, we wouldn’t be as sustainable.

So some people often ask me, “What is the reason your agricultural system is so resilient?” And I say, “Because it’s based upon our faith, and it’s based upon our ceremonial cycle.” And so when you combine those two, you have pretty much a perfect match. And so that’s how we look at things.

So I’m assuming the faith dictates a series of practices that are what make the system resilient, is that right?

It’s not so much the ceremonial practices or the concept of faith, but it’s just actually doing something when you do not know what your results are going to be. For example, like in 2018 we were going to have a drought, and we could tell that by just looking at some of our biological indicators. But a lot of us planted any way. We didn’t plant our whole entire fields, but we planted anyway because we knew that we must do that because that’s what our faith tells us to do. It says that we must plant every year, and so that’s what we did.

Yeah. Such an interesting story. So Michael, you studied conventional agriculture at Cornell University, then earned a master’s degree in public policy from Pepperdine, and ultimately a doctorate in natural resources from the University of Arizona. And I understand that you’ve experienced some cultural dissonance as you pursued the doctorate in conventional agriculture techniques that heightened your appreciation for the practices and food ways of your people. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Well, I think it was mainly the fact that everything that’s based upon conventional agriculture is geared towards economics. I mean, there’s really no way, once the farmer buys into this system, that they have no clear way of getting out, or even their profit margin is so slim. And so every little input they have is costly to the environment.

For example, the USDA market system is based upon higher yields, and to create higher yields, you need to have more efficiency. And by more efficiency, you need to start to use all these things that the seed companies and the chemical companies give you, and that means things like herbicides, pesticides. And unfortunately it just drains off into the environment and drains off into the waterways.

My cultural dissonance came into thinking that we don’t raise things out here for economics. We raise them for sustenance. It’s small farming, subsistence farming. And so that’s how come I was kind of disillusioned by what I saw. And I’d say we don’t have that great burden that the American farmer has. And it’s unfortunate because that burden is also caused psychologically.

Just recently in this 2018 farm bill, there was money put aside for to prevent suicides that are happening in the Midwest because when people lose their farm, they feel like they lose their life, and that’s just a very unfortunate situation. At our place, at Hopi, our psychological wellbeing is kind of built into our agricultural system in many ways.

For an example, one time I was up plastering the walls in my beautiful Hopi sandstone house, and an elderly gentleman came by and he said, “Did you put seeds in the plaster? It’s very important, Michael, it’s very important.” And I said… I thought it was kind of crazy, being that he’s kind of old and everything, but I did that. He came back a week later and he says, “Did you do it?” And I said, “Yes.” And I said, “But how come he asked me to do that?” I says, “I can’t eat those.” And he says, “That’s because you will always remember that you have food in the house.” He said, “When we’re going through drought and those type of things, we always have this way of trying to deal with that psychologically.” So that’s, when I look at the American system, how come I was kind of disillusioned with it.

What an interesting story about the seeds in the house. Can you say a little bit more about the relationship that a farmer has with the land using conventional versus regenerative approaches or traditional approaches?

Well, from a Hopi standpoint of view, that corn is touched at least seven or eight times throughout its life. Everything from harvesting to shelling to planting to preparing it for food. So there’s this very intimate relationship that we have with the things that we grow and our land.

For example, when I was out gathering plants one day with my grandfather a long time ago, we found the plant that we needed, but he told me to leave it. He says, “We need to keep that for the next generation.” So we went on for another half-an-hour until we found some more. And so it’s that type of relationship that we have with the land. It’s one of caring and it’s one of reverence.

And I’m not saying that conventional agriculturalist doesn’t look at the land that way, but because of all the inputs that he uses, and he’s up on his big combines and his tractors, and everything like that, he doesn’t really get to actually understand the value of that, the reverence for that, the respect for that. And so it kind of taps out, I would say in sort of a belief system fashion that he just doesn’t quite understand the value of what he’s doing. I could be wrong, but that’s how I look at it.

Can you paint a picture for us of what your farm is like and what do you grow there and what sort of practices do you use to try to keep consistent with your principles and values?

I’m at the Hopi Indian reservation in Northern Arizona. We’re about 45 to 5,000 feet. We have sandy clay loam soils, a lot of desert shrubs and brushes. We only receive six to 10 inches of annual rainfall a year. And that’s an important factor because when I was at Cornell, they said I needed 33 inches of rainfall a year in order to raise things like corn. So I raise things like corn, different varieties. We have over 21 different varieties. And I also raise squash, and melons, different types of melons, and gourds, and even cotton sometimes.

And all this is done without irrigation. Now it’s done this way because we have something like three paces, which is almost like six feet between rows. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we are trying to conserve soil moisture. So when you talk about regenerative and you said the water cycle, we use very little, a limited amount of water. And our seeds have adapted for over 2000 years to go through things like droughts. And our planning depths are also anywhere from six to 18 inches deep depending upon what we see in the springtime. And so there’s a lot of different techniques there that we use, that we have used, that allow us to preserve the land.

For example, we just don’t take all the corn plant away like they do in conventional, they’ll cut the thing off. We leave everything there, we’ll just take the cob off, and that cluster will act as windbreaks in the springtime when winds are blowing across the field, or it’ll also catch snow when the snow falls. And so everything in Hopi has three or four purposes. It’s just not one single linear approach like that I see conventional farmers use.

So you mentioned 21 different varieties of corn, so why not just find the one or two varieties that work best under those conditions and grow just them?

So a lot of them are just used for different purposes. A lot of them, they’re all eaten when they’re fresh. And we have like six varieties used for ceremonies. That’s how come we grow a lot of varieties because our crops are tied directly to our ceremonial goings-on and things.

So this idea of regenerative agriculture, the term regenerative agriculture, most people would consider relatively new on the scene. And you’re saying, “Wait a minute, people have been doing this kind of thing for a really, really long time, and paying attention to some traditional practices might make good sense.” Am I hearing you right?

Yes, you are. I mean, we can go down the list like biodiversity. There’s no place in the United States that I know that there’s this kind of biodiversity as far as domestic crop production, things like corn, beans, and squash. And what I mean “biodiversity” that means if we get one disease on a plant, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’ll jump to another plant like you would have in the conventional agriculture, and what happened back in the ’70s during the Texas T blight that wiped out monocrops across the board.

Soil health, I gave a few examples of that of just leaving everything on the field when you harvest. Also, we plant in areas that are conducive to bringing in new new soil on alluvial floodplains, and therefore our pH levels on our fields are about 8.8 which is about perfect for corn. And these are 75 to 100 year old fields in some places.

Also, this resiliency to climate change, I mean, nowhere else can I see corn grow in an area that doesn’t receive any rainfall from April all the way up until the end of July. That’s resiliency in a nutshell. It’s resistance to climate change. And so we’re able to try to overcome some of those things. Every year we do not have a crop, so that’s the other thing, but we’re also smart enough to plant enough to last us three to five years to help us get through some of these longer drought periods.

And in addition, there are many, many generations of wisdom built into an agriculture system like that. And wisdom, not only in the people who are growing the food, but wisdom in the plants and a wisdom in the lands. Would you say that that’s true?

That is true, sir. That is true. I mean, there’s 2000 years of replication, and I’m still trying to get NRCS to understand that and why we have to use their conservation practices when ours are just as good, if not more valid for our area? And also the fact that, those conventional agricultural techniques are subsidized, whereas ours are not because they’re not scientifically validated. And I still have a problem with that because you have 2000 years of replication on the ground where you only have 250 or less for these natural resource conservation standard practices. And so I’m just trying to figure out why that’s so, and I’m developing some policy to try to rectify that situation.

Do you see things as changing? Are more and more people kind of aware of this type of an approach?

I think if they get to see it, they’ll become aware of it. Unfortunately, a lot of indigenous practices that we still see going on aren’t really given that much credence. Unless they’re aligned with what Western technology is showing, they’re kind of looked at as informal knowledge, which is not really true. Our biggest problem right now is just to try to tell some of our stories and what we’re doing. And so working with the Native American Agriculture Fund is allowing me to start to do that.

And I’ve also been able to speak at a couple of regenerative agricultural conferences. That’s also important too, because as you know, if you’re not out there talking about things and looking at things, you’ll never hear about these beautiful things that have been going on for well over two millennia.

Do you see hope that these kinds of practices could be used on a broad scale? Let’s say you have thousands of acres as some farmers do, could this be done on a larger scale do you think?

I think it could be done. Taking our Hopi cropping system and putting in Iowa, it wouldn’t do any good because it just wouldn’t fit in there because everything that we do out here is place-based. By looking at some of what regenerative agriculture is trying to do, some of the techniques are very valid, but the biggest problem that I see is the financial segment. There’s about a three to five year gap of trying to figure out, well, what’s the farmer going to do when he switches over? He’s going to lose money at first because he’s switching over to a whole new system. And so that gap needs to be filled somehow by banks or something like that that would allow the farmer to do that, to improve soil health and all those things that you just mentioned.

So what sort of advice or guidance would you give to conventional farmers who want to shift their operations toward a more regenerative model?

I would have to tell them to look at the regenerative model. I know there’s some people up in Wisconsin and probably in the Midwest there that are already doing some of this stuff, but they’re just few and far between and their stories aren’t really talked about too much that I see. There’s nothing better than talking to your neighbor. I mean, in the farming world, I think when somebody does something, and it’s successful, a lot of people start to buy into it and things start switching.

I think the only resistance we’ll get, to be honest with you, is like from agribusiness and some of the seed companies and the chemical companies that produce the stuff that the farmers need to grow a good high-yielding crop. But I think over time, especially with this recent pandemic that we’re having right now, I think farms will get smaller. I think we’re seeing big bottlenecks in the supply chain because we’re just using a few facilities to distribute a lot of things. And so we need to get back to the smaller family farm that American farmers were founded on.

You’re probably one of the few people who has a deep understanding of both conventional farming and the fully regenerative orientation of the farming. What do you see as the challenges and opportunities for both the Hopi people and for the nation at large?

The challenge is for us is just to get more people to farm. We bought into a lot of the Western ways of doing things like grocery stores and everything else like that. And I’ll never get it back to 100% percent probably like it was in the ’30s during the Great Depression where we didn’t actually feel that out here at Hopi. But I’m talking about at least get it up to at least 50%. Right now, it hovers around 25%, I believe. There’s an assessment being done by the Hopi Foundation to take a look at that.

As far as the conventional thing is concerned, their thing is going to be just trying to find people to buy in. There’s people that want to have regenerative agriculture, but those same people that want it to happen, they also need to find ways to supplement what the farmer’s going to lose for a while as he goes through this cycle of changing up.

Is there anything else you’d like to have people know about this kind of approach?

For me, it’s pretty simple. We farm because this is what our belief tells us. I think that’s very important. I kind of look at all this pandemic crisis of people getting away from their values and just kind of figure out who they are again. It’s a great time of reflection, and I think when it all comes down to it and everybody comes out of this, I think we’re going to see a big surge in trying to get back to things that will help us, the things that we value the most. I hope it goes that direction. I feel it’s going to go that direction. It’s just people helping people, neighbors talking to neighbors, and so forth down the line. It’s the old way of doing things that I think has more value in it than people can see right now.


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