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A farming success springs in Navajo Nation

Navajo Pride is the brand name of products grown and sold by the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI), but for Tsosie Lewis and his management team at the 70,000-acre farming enterprise, Pride is more than products — it's a way of life.

Lewis is a Navajo and proud of that. He's also a farmer, a businessman and most of all a leader. That the huge farming operation, perched on a mesa over a mile above sea level, is now a success story is tantamount to Lewis' leadership and management skills.

“The success we have had a NAPI is a result of hard work and long hours by a talented group of farm managers and farm workers — it's not my success, it's our success,” Lewis says.

NAPI started in 1972, with little input from the Navajo Nation. The U.S. government-built Navajo Dam, located north of Farmington, New Mexico, provides over a half million acres of water for the farm. So, in a dry, arid part of the country, water is not a problem — a short growing season, limited transportation and high costs of farming are problems.

With more than 100,000 acres of land, NAPI is likewise not limited by acreage. Currently, NAPI produces (under center pivot irrigation) 7,000 acres of small grain, 16,500 acres of alfalfa, 14,000 acres of corn, 5,000 acres of pinto beans and 2,000 acres of potatoes.

In addition, nearly 10,000 acres are leased to outside farming enterprises, including 4,000 acres of pumpkins and popcorn, grown in 2005 by Greensboro, NC-based Pumpkin Patch. The huge farming operation also includes a 5,000 head feedlot, 200 acres of fruit crops and a recently planted nursery to produce ash trees.

High on Lewis's priority list is developing jobs for the Navajo. With an unemployment rate in excess of 50 percent, he sees the opportunities for growth to be both critical and available. “Too many of our young people go to school, get an education, but have no jobs available here, so they take their expertise to other parts of the country. One of our goals is to develop value-added systems to our farm to produce employment opportunities for Navajo of all skill levels,” Lewis says.

The Navajo Nation, a country within a country, is about the size of West Virginia. Despite the determined efforts of Navajo leaders, like Lewis, developing their land base often requires partnering with outside sources, as evidenced by the ongoing relationship with John Deere, Bayer Crop Science and Crop Quest, just a few of NAPI's farming partners.

Everything has a place at NAPI and every penny is carefully considered before Lewis approves expenditures. “I rely heavily on my crop managers to make decisions, and together we weigh the return value of a crop long before we plant it,” the Navajo leader says.

NAPI has some unique arrangements with their vendors, including Crop Quest, the largest crop consulting company in the United States. “Crop Quest came to us in 2002 with a proposal to help us grow crops,” Lewis says. “I had seen how outside experts had done more to run our farm into the ground, rather than make it profitable, so I was skeptical from the start.

“Over a short period of time, I have gone from being a skeptic to being a strong supporter of Crop Quest. I depend on my farm managers and three of them work with Crop Quest on a regular basis.”

John Hecht, Crop Quest Special Projects Manager, says the company has been flexible in working with NAPI, providing an on-call service to help with corn, wheat and alfalfa production. Both Hecht and Crop Quest Agronomist Gary Knight are headquartered in Farmington, N.M., a 10-minute drive from the NAPI farm.

Leonard Scott, Small Grains Crop Manager at NAPI, says he, “set aside a number that I hope to reach, in terms of wheat yield per acre, and so far, we have met my goal each year that John and I have worked together.” Scott won't say what that number is for the 2006 wheat crop, but he does hold up three fingers, indicating at least a three digit or 100 bushel per acre yield.

Scott's number has been a good one for wheat, averaging over 100 bushels per acres for up to 10,000 acres of wheat for the past three years.

“Storage and transportation are my main problems with wheat,” Lewis says. “We recently built two silos, each holding 15,000 tons, which has helped with storing the huge amounts of grain that we generate. Most of our wheat goes to California and has to be trucked about 90 miles to the nearest railhead, so we still struggle with transportation from time to time,” he says.

“From a production standpoint, we don't have many problems. John, Adam Sandoval (small grain Crop Foreman) and I sit down and plan our crop each year. John provides me with information I need for fertility and water needs at planting and monitors weed and insect buildups during the growing season, so the production part of growing wheat goes smoothly, as long as we plan carefully, and I am big believer in planning to get the timing of everything right,” Scott says.

“Wheat prices have been good in recent years, and we've had good yields, so we can expect acreage to increase on the farm. We currently have 70,000 acres under irrigation, and we have another 35,000 acres or so to develop.”

The single largest crop NAPI produces is alfalfa. The high quality alfalfa hay goes primarily (about 80 percent) to dairy farms in New Mexico and Arizona, but some makes it way to the thoroughbred farms of Kentucky and to other regions of the country.

Jennifer Elliot heads the alfalfa operation, which will likely reach 16,500 acres this year. Elliot, who is not Navajo, exudes the same pride in alfalfa as do her Navajo counterparts in other NAPI crop production areas.

“One of our biggest problems with wheat is water scheduling, especially on new-stand alfalfa,” Elliot says. “Out here, we have to schedule water two to three days ahead of time, so that the reservoir, which is about 30 miles away, will have time to get water to us,” she explains.

“With so many acres of alfalfa under pivot at any one time, it is critical to have as many sets of eyes in the field as possible. I have several people I work with, including Gary Knight, who help keep me aware of production needs and pest problems,” Elliot says.

In the high desert of New Mexico, alfalfa grows year around. Elliot plants alfalfa from July to September and harvests hay four times a year from May until October.

“I also have marketing responsibilities for alfalfa, so it often becomes impossible to focus on everyday production problems. Gary and my crop foreman take care of many of the routine problems we see, freeing me to look at the crop on a bigger scope,” Elliot says.

“All our crop managers do a wonderful job,” says General Manager Lewis. “Sometimes they are so focused on the forest, they don't see the trees so well and our vendor/partners keep track of the trees, allowing the forest to grow as it should.”

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