Growing up, I spent a large portion of my hot summer days and three-day weekend breaks visiting relatives near the Four Corners region and accompanying my mother on business trips throughout the Navajo reservation. Recently, my curiosity for locating local food on tribal lands has grown. Now, during single-day trips to Shiprock, Gallup and other places, I find myself surveying the sides of highways for permanent farm vendors and growers’ markets – with no luck. So, I began to wonder where I might be able to buy locally grown produce such as melons, beans, corn and squash in small rural towns and at highway crossroads that are normally lined with fast-food restaurants and large chain grocery stores.
When you drive along Highway 64 from Farmington to Shiprock, the scenery is composed of endless farms and trees following the San Juan River. According to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture, San Juan and McKinley Counties – which are in the northeastern region of New Mexico – have 3,786 farms operated by Native American Indians, for a total area of 3,918,017 acres. After discovering how many farms were nestled in these two counties within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, I was surprised that locally grown food was not as readily available here as it was in distant urbanized areas away from large farms.
As I researched further, I used Google Maps to count the number of supermarkets around the Four Corners and Gallup area. There are nearly twenty-one chain stores within the reservation area such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, Smith’s and Albertson’s to name a few. From the New Mexico Farmer’s Market Association (NMFMA), I found out there are only four NMFMA certified farmers’ markets either inside or within close proximity to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. This is a small number compared to the number of big box stores on tribal lands. The markets include the Shiprock Growers’ Market, Farmington Growers’ Market, Gallup Farmers’ Market and Ramah Farmers’ Market. Each varies in operating seasons and hours:
Farmington Growers’ Market
Location: The Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3401 E Main St.
Schedule: Saturdays, 8am-11am; Tuesdays, 4:30pm-6pm
Season: Saturdays from May 21st until first hard frost; Tuesdays starting July 12th
Gallup Farmers’ Market
Location: Downtown Walkway between Coal & Aztec
Schedule: Saturdays, 9am-12:30pm
Season: From mid-July to mid-October
Ramah Farmers’ Market
Location: Ramah Museum, 12 Bloomfield Rd
Schedule: Saturdays, 10am-1pm
Season: From mid-June until October 8th
Shiprock Farmers’ Market
Location: Behind the Wells Fargo Bank, south of the fire station
Schedule: Saturdays, 8am until sellout; Wednesdays, 3pm until sellout
Season: Saturdays, August 6th until October 29th; Wednesdays, August 10th until September 28th
I could not find any winter markets in the area, but I know my upcoming summer schedule will be filled with visits to these markets. Roadside vendor sales are not recorded by any USDA Census of Agriculture publications, making it more difficult to find exact locations of places to buy reservation farmers’ products. Since my search so far had proved difficult in sourcing locally grown food, I started to research which agricultural products were grown within the San Juan and McKinley Counties. This way I would know the types of food to look for in smaller trading post stores or markets such as Bashas’ Dine Market. My search showed:
- 97 farms selling grains, oilseeds, dry beans and dry peas
- 905 farms selling vegetables, melons, potatoes and sweet potatoes
- 87 farms selling fruits, tree nuts and berries
- 1,554 farms selling sheep, goats and their products
- 896 farms selling cattle and calves.
Watermelon, potatoes, corn and squash are top items on the grocery lists of reservation visitors.
Overall, these American Indian operated farms encompass almost four million acres of land within the two northeastern counties of New Mexico. The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) stands out as a large industrial scale farming producer. The 110,630 acres of farm land sits south of Farmington and grows alfalfa, corn, beans, wheat barley and other small grains over 70,000 acres. During a few visits last summer to the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Farmington, I was able to buy a large bag of “Navajo Pride” potatoes which were grown on NAPI land.
I had to venture into other stores on the reservation in order to find locally grown food. In Crownpoint, which is north of Grants, there is a Bashas’ Dine Market that sold eggplant from Arizona and walnuts packaged in Window Rock. When I passed through Gallup, I went into the tiny La Montanita Co-op store where a three foot wide rack left of the entrance had fresh produce scattered on top.
It turns out, finding large amounts of Navajo Nation products on the reservation during winter months is quite challenging. After discovering the number of farms within the Navajo Nation area, I assumed I could simply walk into any local grocery store like the City Market in Shiprock and easily find a package of dried beans that was grown nearby. Luckily, I found a local grocery store in Farmington called Wildly Natural Foods that sold a variety of heritage beans, elk and deer meats, goat cheeses and blue corn flour from regional sources either fifty miles away in Colorado or from local farms in New Mexico.
On my road trips passing through the towns, the only types of roadside farm vendors I found were selling bushels of hay. Along U.S. Highway 64 between Farmington and Shiprock, I stopped at the Original Sweetmeats Inc. store in Waterflow. They sold fresh mutton, lamb and goat meats that were raised directly south of the store across the highway. Most of the local foods I found on my visits were meats, cheeses, milks, dried beans, flours and corn meals since I went during the colder months.
As the season grows warmer, I will have better luck finding fresh local food such as wild greens, roots and fruits. During this time, I know the roadside vendors will come out of hibernation to sell their melons out of the back of pickup trucks and the markets will open up for business. I realized small farmers have a hard time acquiring the proper certifications to sell their products in stores or markets.
When I had previously visited a Craft Market in Shiprock during the parade and fair season in October, I ran into a lady selling fresh corn that was steamed in the ground out of her pickup in a dirt parking lot. This method of cooking is a native tradition. She was covering her corn with a large blue tarp to protect it from the sun. She would let her customers pick through the corn they wanted to purchase but quickly covered the corn once the health inspector passed by. I am unsure of whether her actions were to avoid a health code citation or violation for not having a license to sell food.
These type of truck bed purchases are a frequent sight around the reservation, along with roadside stands and grills selling mutton stews. Thus far, I believe they are the closest many will get to buying “local.” For now, access to native grown food is limited for the people on the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners and Gallup regions. However, I am hopeful many more stores and markets will emerge in the near future that sell local products from farms right in the backyards of the reservation. If you ever venture far out into the dusty and arid landscapes of the Navajo Nation looking for some local grub, this map of local stores and market locations may help you in your endeavor.
Posted by Miriam