Amazing Facts about Arizona Agriculture on Tribal Lands

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau Communication Director: Go off the beaten path in just about any direction in Arizona and you’ll run into tribal lands reflecting an agriculture tradition that can only be claimed by the Native Americans. Here, you can find generational farm families growing everything from ceremonial corn that requires special blessings at each stage of planting and growth to modern-day biotech (yes, GMOs) crops covering vast acres as far as the eye can see.

In fact, don’t call cotton in Arizona the historical crop of World War I when it was grown for the manufacture of tires during the war years. The Hohokam planted ancient cotton seed over 2,000 years ago in Arizona’s desert soils.

Arizona and many of the southwest states have a rich Native American agriculture history. It’s in Arizona where we can claim the largest concentration of American Indian farms in the United States. And, there’s even more to this special story about Arizona agriculture and tribal lands.

Bet You Didn’t Know …

  • Arizona has the largest concentration of American Indian farms in the United States.

  • Tribal land agriculture is a significant part of the size and scope of Arizona agriculture.

  • Arizona is the only state in the nation in which more than half of all farmers and ranchers are American Indians.

  • The majority of Arizona’s sheep, goats and horses are raised on American Indian farms and ranches.

  • In fact, nearly 21 million farm acres in Arizona are tended to by producers on the state’s twenty American Indian tribes and nations. This accounts for nearly 80 percent of all land in farms in Arizona.

  • In the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture (done every 5 years), Arizona had 20,005 farms and ranches listed. The previous census (2007) the number was 15,637, a 28% increase. Why the large increase? More subsistence farms and ranches on tribal lands are being counted, a unique cultural and historical distinction for our state. While other states do have tribal farms counted, ours represent well over 50% of the farms and ranches counted.

  • In 2012, these farms also sold close to $67 million worth of agricultural products ($85 million in the 2007 Census). And while that $67 million represents just under 2% of Arizona’s total of $3.7 billion agriculture commodities sold, this figure averages approximately $6,000 per American Indian farm in Arizona. 

  • Through the 2002 census, reservations were counted as a single farm and individual producers within the boundaries of the reservation were not counted. This caused major underrepresentation of American Indian agriculture in the United States.

  • To correct this undercounting for the 2007 census, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) worked with other USDA agencies and several national American Indian groups to change the census data collection process.

  • In conducting the 2007 Census of Agriculture, NASS placed a special emphasis on the outreach to the American Indian farmers and ranchers.

  • NASS engaged each tribe or nation in the United States to help build lists of American Indian producers and allow NASS to collect census data from individual producers. A large number of tribes and nations agreed to participate and for the first time, American Indian agriculture in Arizona was counted the same way as agriculture outside reservations boundaries.

  • These changes in counting American Indian producers were especially noticeable in Arizona. The number of reported American Indian farmers and ranchers has more than doubled. The 2012 census showed that there were 20,005 total farms and 56% were growing crops or raising livestock on reservations. This huge increase in the number of American Indian farms also impacted the United States farm numbers. Arizona now has the largest concentration of American Indian farms in the United States.

  • Another major trend that emerged was in livestock production. In 2002, only 6 percent of all farms in Arizona raised sheep and 7 percent raised goats. However, American Indian farms were much more likely to raise livestock and according to the 2012 Census, the percentage of farms raising sheep and goats jumped to 37% and 28%, respectively.

Reservation Agriculture Represents Diversity, an Arizona Tradition

  • Reservation agriculture in Arizona is not one size fits all. There are several reservations where tribes lease most of their agricultural lands to non-Indian farmers.
  • There also may be some tribal members who grow small acreages of crops or raise small herds of livestock but the majority of agricultural activity on these reservations comes from the leasing situations. The Cocopah and Fort Yuma reservations in the Yuma area are typical examples and the Salt River Pima Maricopa tribe is an example from central Arizona.
  • Tribes that have large commercial tribal farms or ranches are another type of reservation agriculture. These reservations may also lease lands to farmers or ranchers. Examples of this type of reservation agriculture are the Fort Mohave Tribe and Colorado River Indian Tribe in western Arizona and the Gila River, Ak Chin and Fort McDowell tribes in central Arizona. There are numerous other tribes that also have this structure.
  • Yet another type of reservation agriculture involves tribes where most of the agricultural commodities are grown or raised by small family farms that use the commodities mostly for home consumption. Most of the agriculture on these types of reservations is based on the production of cattle, sheep and goats. The Navajo Nation falls into this farm class.

The Navajo Nation Effect

  • With nearly 14,500 farms, the Navajo Nation is by far the largest reservation in the United States and it dominated the agriculture census statistics for American Indians. In addition to being the largest reservation in Arizona, the Navajo Nation also includes parts of New Mexico and Utah, and covers nearly 17 million acres, mostly permanent pasture for grazing.
  • Unlike the producers who farm off the reservations, Navajo Nation producers focus much more on sustenance than on commercial farming. Despite selling more than $92 million worth of agricultural products, 69% of the Navajo Nation farms reported total sales less than $1,000. In contrast, only 33 percent of farms off reservations had sales of less than $1,000.
  • Despite the fact that the Navajo farms within the Arizona border are small, the flip side of this story resides in New Mexico where one of the largest commercial farms is held by the Navajo tribe. Navajo Agriculture Products Industry, or NAPI, farms 72,000 acres with 110,630 available. They grow alfalfa, corn, small grains, potatoes and beans. And, under the specialty crops category, are growing ancient ceremonial agriculture products such as corn. On the same farm they are also growing biotech crops. They sell their products under the Navajo Pride brand.
  • What also sets Navajo Nation farming apart from other operations in the Unites States is the predominance of female operators. Just under 50% of all Navajo Nation farms had a principal operator who was female while in the United States, 14% of all farms had a principal operator who was female, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

The Future of Reservation Farming

There are several reservations in Arizona that already lease large acreages of reservation cropland to commercial producers operating outside reservation boundaries. Will this continue to increase in the years to come? What is the capacity for tribes to increase their cropland base?  What types of commodities will be grown on reservation acres? 

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