When Lena Sanchez walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma in May, she had much more to smile about than graduating from the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque. The New Mexico native and Jicarilla Apache descendant recently placed first in the New Mexico Native American Economic Summit’s Shark Tank Challenge with a business plan for the nonprofit she founded and operates: Generation Ag.
“The Shark Tank challenge was part of the Youth Impact Initiative,” Sanchez said. “It’s a competition held specifically for the youth. It’s modeled after the TV show Shark Tank. You have to either individually or in a group come up with a business plan for a business or service that might impact or benefit the community and pitch it to the judges.”
Sanchez will be a fellow at the upcoming Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit, a program held in Fayetteville, Ark., and sponsored by the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law. She has attended the summit for the past two years, and credits it as the place where Generation Ag began.
“How that came about was I attended the Summit in Arkansas last summer (2015) where student fellows had to write a proposal for a business plan or organization or community project that could be modeled all throughout Indian Country,” she said.
“My business plan was for my nonprofit organization called Generation Ag,” she said. “Generation Ag is a mentorship program to help youth find a career in agriculture. I did that because you hear all the crazy statistics nowadays like the average age of a farmer or rancher is 58 years or older and there’s the question of how are we going to feed the next generation and what’s that going to look like?”
The summit project did not require implementation, but Sanchez stated the support she received for her idea from other fellows inspired and motivated her to put the idea into action, and continue working on it during her senior year in high school.
“Lena is such an amazing young woman and is already such an inspiring young leader,” IFAI Director Janie Simms Hipp said. “Lena gets things done and has an inclusive and proactive vision for the agriculture she wants to see in the future. Indian Country is in good hands.”
Sanchez, who grew up in a ranching family, said she never considered a career in agriculture until her family sold off her grandfather’s land and livestock after his passing in 2010. She began to realize that the same scenario was being played out all over the country due to a lack of interest among younger farmers and ranchers to fill the boots of the older generation.
“Zach Ducheneaux (program manager for the Intertribal Agriculture Council) made a presentation at the Ag Summit in 2014 that really stuck with me,” she said. “He just threw a bunch of statistics at us but it was really eye opening to see that there is a declining population of farmers and ranchers and right now, there’s not enough people to fill their place.”
Sanchez said it was Duchenaux’s speech that helped her decide to become a youth leader in agriculture. However, it wasn’t for another year until her aspirations of curving the decline in young agriculturalists would begin to manifest.
“It’s very exciting and makes me think that I can actually do this and continue Gen Ag and make it into something bigger and better like the New Mexico Cattle Growers or the Intertribal Agriculture Council. It’s crazy to think that all this is happening and I could create a sustainable business for myself before I even graduate college.”
Sanchez says she has already begun developing a strategy to operate and grow Generation Ag while she attends college.
“My plan right now is to focus on tribal and rural communities. Indian high schools or youth organizations that I can present to, because agriculture is more abundant in rural communities, so I think I can have more engagement there.
She hopes to inspire the youth by showing them the diverse array of careers related to agriculture.
“It’s difficult because when I was younger I thought of agriculture as it’s either farming or ranching and there’s no in between, there are no other options for you, and it takes a whole lifetime to build an agriculture business.
“But there are many opportunities, there’s a whole world of things you can do relating to agriculture. You don’t have to be out there raising cattle or digging in the dirt if you don’t want to, to help agriculture. You can work for the USDA or a nonprofit like I do, and if you get the right support it’s not this big scary thing that you can’t accomplish, it’s a very attainable goal.”