Seeds and Sheep program is distributing drought-resistant seeds to Native American families in San Juan County

If bare supermarket shelves and stay-at-home orders have marked the coronavirus pandemic for many Americans, the crisis has also sparked a renewed interest in home food production. Baby chicks have repeatedly sold out across Utah, and Google searches for “sourdough” across the country saw a 500% increase between February and April.

The Navajo Nation, where many citizens already faced long drives to grocery stores before the pandemic, has been no exception.

“Indigenous, drought-resilient seeds are in high demand right now, especially in times like these when our food system [has been disrupted by the pandemic],” said Cynthia Wilson, traditional foods program director for Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), an Indigenous-led nonprofit that focuses most of its work in San Juan County. “So in response, we’re encouraging our Native families that we need to go back to our self-sufficient food systems by relying on our land and resources.”

Wilson, a member of the Navajo Nation from Monument Valley, helped launch the Seeds and Sheep program this month. The food sovereignty effort will deliver locally sourced seeds to Native American families across the Four Corners and beyond.

More than 200 families have already submitted requests through a form on the organization’s website, and Wilson has prepared more than 800 packets of seeds with the help of family members. The first packets were mailed this week.

Wilson said she is impressed by the number of requests that have already come in despite the novelty of the program. “It’s really exciting to see how many people are interested in planting and requesting these seeds,” she said. “It encourages me that this is a definite need in our communities and something that our people want to go back to having that subsistence lifestyle.

“Part of this project is also to purchase seeds from our local farmers,” she added. Most of the Diné (Navajo) corn seeds were sourced from farmers in Burnt Corn Valley in northern Arizona. Additional seeds were ordered from Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson-based nonprofit dedicated to conserving and promoting “the arid-adapted crop diversity of the Southwest.”

Pueblo farmers with the Traditional Native American Farmers Association donated corn, melon and bean seeds, which Wilson said will be sent primarily to Pueblo families with the request that people who have a successful harvest send some seeds back to the organization.

(Courtesy of Cynthia Wilson) Workers pack seeds for the program in Monument Valley. Packets will be mailed out to families beginning this week.

“I think this is a good opportunity for our people in San Juan County and the greater Four Corners region to rely on knowledge that's… all from muscle memory, so to speak, from cultural memory,” said Alastair Bitsóí (Diné), UDB’s communications director. “The resources are already in our communities, and now the pandemic is showing us the need to rely on our culture more than ever to survive.”

UDB has been active in supporting coronavirus relief efforts in Diné, Ute and Pueblo communities through organizations like Bluff Area Mutual Aid, which has delivered food and supplies to thousands of people in San Juan County. But the Seeds and Sheep program will approach the crisis with a longer-term mission in mind.

In addition to improving food security, home food production can also help to relieve emotional stress. A recent study from researchers at Princeton University showed that “the level of emotional well-being, or happiness, reported while gardening was similar to what people reported while biking, walking or dining out.”

The researchers also found that out of 15 activities studied, home gardening was the only one “for which women and people with low incomes reported higher emotional well-being than men and medium- and high-income participants, respectively.”

UDB rallied to start the seed distribution effort so that packets would arrive in time to be planted this year, but the group has plans to launch the sheep portion of the program this fall. Wilson said details are still being discussed but the group hopes to give out female ewes and potentially lambs to “families that are very committed to restoring their flock.”

And eventually Wilson wants to tap funds from a “junk food” tax imposed by the Navajo Nation government to start community garden programs on the reservation.

But for now, she hopes people who are at home for the pandemic will seek out the food production wisdom retained by elders.

“A lot of the knowledge is there within the households of these Native families,” she said. “How did that reciprocal relationship of knowing when it would rain or knowing when to plant based on the stars [function]? There’s a whole knowledge tied to the cosmos and the ecosystem, and those knowledge systems are held with our grandparents to this day. Being quarantined, it’s something to take advantage of by calling our elders, listening and learning about their stories.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.