There four distinct communities that make up the expansive Tohono O’odham Nation; the “main reservation” that houses the capital in Sells, Florence Village, San Xavier, and San Lucy. Even though the San Xavier Indian Reservation is much closer to Tucson than the main reservation to the south, they have remained distinct from the city. The most notable landmark is the 18th century Mission San Xavier del Bac, which has been utilized by O’odham Catholics continuously for over two centuries.
The San Xavier Co-op Farm is an 860 acre Certified Naturally Grown farm that began back in the 1970’s when a group of O’odham land owners combined their allotments, dug new wells, and decided to farm collectively. The Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act also made it possible for the farm to irrigate land that become too dry after the city of Tucson had lowered the water table with increased usage. The original charter of the farm highlighted the desire to provide education in the field of agriculture, livestock production, and economic development within San Xavier community, and keep traditional crops vibrant within the community. The farm is working towards this today, through employing O’odham people to work on the farm, through their educational programs, and through food sold at the farm store.
The farm is run by a board of directors comprised of landowners who serve 2-year terms. The board hires a farm manager who in turn hires the employees. Cie’na Schlaefli, the Propagation Manager at the farm, took us on a tour of the main grounds and introduced us to some of the employees who were tending to crops, and preparing produce for sale. The main cash crop of the farm is alfalfa, and the profit from these sales helps to subsidize the production of traditional and food crops.
The nursery department, currently managed by Tomasina Comacho nurtures a wide variety of crops, including dozens of different peppers, tomatoes, mint, melons, asparagus, okra, eggplant, onions, sage, rosemary, chives, lemongrass, stevia, and trees for the orchard, including apple, peach, nectarine, pear, plums, pomegranates and figs. After most of the plants are transferred to the fields, the resulting produce, along with the direct seeded corn, beans and squash, will be sold in the farm store.
The farm grows alfalfa in the summer, and a pasture mix of a variety of wheat, oats and rye in the winter. The heritage wheat, like the Pima Club Wheat and Sonoran White Wheat, low-gluten heirloom varieties that have been grown by O’odham farmers since the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the late 17th century, are also sold in the store.
The San Xavier Co-op is also hosting a large compost program, in collaboration with the Univeristy of Arizona Compost Cats, who partnered with city of Tucson to bring all of their green waste there. Tucson is also the biggest land port for food coming into the US. A lot of the produce begins to spoil as it is held up at the border, in which case it is turned over to the Borderlands Food Bank, or goes to the landfill. Now, it is diverted to this compost program instead. In the 9 months that the compost program had been in operation, they have already diverted 2 million pounds of food and green waste from the landfill. San Xavier farm gets 20% of the compost for the use of the land and some of their equipment for the project. The rest is donated to school gardens, food bank gardens, and is sold to support the program.
The Co-op is Certified Naturally Grown is “the grassroots alternative to certified organic:” a peer certification process in which farmers in the area inspect each other and hold each other accountable. To qualify, farms agree to produce food without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or GMO crops. All of the food in the San Xavier Co-op store has been produced under these conditions.
In addition to the crops grown on site, the farm also harvests mesquite pods, and purchases from community members who harvest. During the summer, when temperatures in the greenhouses reach over 120, this is the perfect spot to dry the beans, which are then ground into flour. The farm hosts workshops for community members about harvesting and drying the beans properly, as well as about harvesting and preparing traditional wild foods like cholla buds. After the cactus buds are picked, they’re roasted to try to burn off some of the stickers, the remaining of which are rubbed off with leather gloves.
We also had the opportunity to meet Gabriel Mendoza, who currently works for the San Xavier Co-op farm, but was formerly an apprentice for Project Oidag at TOCA. He described with great appreciation the knowledge he gained while working at TOCA, about how to prepare fields, grow crops, and develop a business plan. He is now applying this experience, and gaining new knowledge while working at the San Xavier farm. He is determined to have a farm of his own someday, where he can continue to apply this knowledge. He also highlighted the importance of trying to fill the footprints of previous generations of O’odham farmers, as well as teach the next generation that would follow them.