The Cochiti Youth Experience (CYE) began as a 4-H program 20 years ago. One day in 2008, CYE co-founder Adae Romero and fellow community members were discussing the importance of educating youth about their tribal history, as well as keeping healthy, and decided to do more with the 4-H program. CYEP was reincorporated in 2008 as a non-profit, with Tribal council approved programming beginning programming in 2010. Their first grant came from the First Nations Development Institute, which has continued to sustain them.
One of the many programs that CYE sponsors is the farmer mentor program, which pairs youth with farmers, often times one of their relatives. Youth in the program range from 5 to early teens. In Cochiti, men who are interested in farming request land from the tribal council, and farming is primarily a male activity. But there are a few girls in the CYE agricultural program, who garden together on a patch of land set aside for them.
One of the farmers recruited to the program was Adae’s cousin, Jayson Romero. Jayson has a 5-acre plot of land that he farms while mentoring his 12-year-old nephew LeRoy. Leroy is not always excited about the hard work that is required to maintain the field (especially when it requires getting up early), but enjoys operating the tractor. The hope of mentors like Jason is that when these youth grow older they’ll apply the knowledge they’re learning to fields of their own.
Many of the farmers in Cochiti now focus on alfalfa, which is sold as a cash crop. As a result in the decrease of food production, most community members drive to Santa Fe for their food, although the traditional corn required for ceremonial foods has to be grown in the community, as it is not widely available otherwise. The goal of the CYE farmer mentor program is to ensure that there will always be enough corn grown for their ceremonies and home consumption. Most of Jayson’s corn goes to his grandmother for traditional family use and the rest is sold for Blue Corn Tortilla chips (you may have even eaten some of it yourself!).
In the fields, Jason walked us through rows of corn, sunflowers, melons, cantaloupe, and variety of beans popping out of the sandy soil. I asked Jason how they knew when it was time to plant, and he replied, “When the humming birds get here.” He keeps hummingbird feeders outside of his house. When the hummingbirds return on their migration, they tap on his kitchen window until he fills the feeders. When they’re returned, its warm enough to plant. Sunflowers are planted in the center of the fields to bring the pollinators past the other crops. CYE started a bee program last summer, mentoring one of youth on honey production, and locating the bee boxes near the fields to help with pollination.
The produce from the garden goes to Jayson and Leroy’s relatives, with surplus going to the CYE run farmers market. Jayson and Leroy head into the garden early in the morning and pick produce that Leroy then sells at the market, getting to keep the profits. CYE established the market to teach the youth about entrepreneurship and the benefits of farming. Some of the challenges to producing these crops include animals like deer, elk, buffalo, cows, gophers, and grasshoppers that eat the plants or flatten them, and fellow community members, some of whom will come down at night and snatch up ears of corn or pumpkins.
The most prevalent crop in the fields is corn. Cochiti farmers plant white corn, blue corn, red corn, and multicolored corn, from seed saved every year for what Jayson figures to be thousands of years. Each variety is planted in separate sections but Jayson did not seem to be worried them crossing (for seed saving purposes corn is usually planted at least 1000 feet in arid conditions, or up to a mile in more humid climates away from other corn varieties). Jayson’s family later showed me some of the more interesting crosses they had saved, describing with great joy some of the more unusual colors (like metallic purple) that have popped up. While some of the farms we have visited were stringent about keeping corn varieties separate and pure in order to maintain old traditional strains, this Cochiti family plants separate varieties, but is not disappointed when they cross. When we described these corns to Mohawk seed saver and seed school instructor Rowen White, she explained that this is how many Native communities previously treated seed, allowing it to remain genetically robust through crossing with other indigenous corns. In an upcoming post we will further discuss seed saving and traditional crop breeding among the communities and projects we’ve been to visit.
In addition the agricultural program, CYE hosts a traditional lunch program where young people eat lunch every day with the elders and speak the Keres language. CYE also hosts a program in which with elder women teach younger women about traditionally gathered foods
As described in CYE’s website introduction, “Agriculture and traditional Pueblo farming is the ancestral gift, the framework that offers present-day Pueblo people a guide to even our most complicated modern day social problems. With that, CYE seeks to empower Cochiti youth through farming programs and other health related programs that encourage Cochiti youth to be firmly rooted in the ways of Pueblo people.”