Azelya Yazzie, a member of the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit class of 2016, was recently awarded a $1,000 Pollination Project grant to conduct educational outreach in Native American communities in her home region of Southern California.
Yazzie has been involved with numerous service and leadership efforts in the past year, and was an Earth Team volunteer for the Natural Resource Conservation Service. The grant is the most recent of Yazzie’s outreach efforts aimed at revitalizing traditional food-ways and improving the health of Native American communities.
She describes the grant award and her other service efforts as the result of the simple philosophy she’s adopted: the philosophy of “yes.”
“My best piece of advice to youth interested in pursuing their passions or growing as leaders is to just say ‘yes’,” Yazzie said. “You never know what one opportunity will lead to just because you weren’t afraid of taking the chance and you said ‘yes’. It’s amazing how many people you will meet that want to help you, by just taking the first step.”
Azelya Yazzie speaking at the 2016 National Resource Conservation and Development Councils Convention on Native youth in food and agriculture initiatives.
Yazzie learned the value of her philosophy first hand in December 2015 when she took her own first step by attending the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s Indian Agriculture Youth Alliance in Las Vegas. Yazzie said the meeting seemed like an excellent venue to learn about connections between two subjects she’d long been interested in: growing food and exploring her indigenous ancestry.
“It was the first agriculture opportunity I stumbled upon that was for Native Youth,” she said.
The IAC’s annual three-day meeting is designed to educate, empower and create connections among the ever-growing network of Native American farmers, ranchers and agriculturalists working throughout Indian Country.
Alliance youth participate in a modified version of the conference, providing multiple activities and opportunities for the younger members to network and learn from the organization’s more experienced professionals. One activity involved youth members receiving mentorship on how to fill out a Farm Service Agency Youth Loan application. It was during this activity that Yazzie would say “yes” once again, and meet her current mentor, IAC Technical Assistance Specialist Keir Johnson.
From left, Mark Van Horn, Director of UC Davis Student Farm, Tom Tomich, Director of UC Davis Agriculture Sustainability Institute, Azelya Yazzie and Keir Johnson-Reyes. Taken on a tour arranged for Yazzie of the UC Davis Ecological Garden.
A citizen of the Osage Nation, Johnson was hired by the IAC in June 2014 to provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers in the IAC’s pacific region. Johnson said he was going around checking in on youth from his region in attendance, when by chance, he sat down to talk with Yazzie and her father.
“She was really interested in expanding her experience,” Johnson said. “She seemed very engaged with getting more involved in agriculture and her dad was completely on board, so we exchanged information and began reaching out every one or two weeks.”
Yazzie said Johnson has been the source of numerous opportunities that have come her way in the past year.
Soon after meeting, they formulated the idea for Yazzie to develop a project as an Earth Team volunteer for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Yazzie said the experience has expanded her understanding of sustainability and helped her grow as a leader.
“Working with the NRCS helped me grow as a leader by allowing me to step out of my comfort zone and gain responsibility, by asking questions to farmers I’ve just met,” Yazzie said. “I would learn about fuel ladders, different bugs that are killing the trees, how to stop erosion … I would also get the opportunity to work with tribal liaisons to help the local tribes conserve their traditional plants used for ceremonies and tools.”
Azelya Yazzie and Keir Johnson on a tour of the UC Davis Baggins End Student Living Community.
When Yazzie graduated high school in May 2016, Johnson gave her a gift pouch of traditional seeds, including some with personal significance, Osage red corn, a variety of Osage corn with vibrant colored kernels of deep red and purple. The variety, once on the brink of extinction, has begun to make a comeback through the work of individual seed savers and concerted efforts by the Osage Nation.
Yazzie – now a student at San Diego Community College studying sustainable agriculture – said the seeds Johnson gave her will be used in her future project focused on helping Native American youth learn how to grow and cook their own traditional foods.
In addition to Yazzie’s collegiate studies, her work with NRCS, and her traditional food project, she will be traveling with Johnson and other IAC members to Hawaii in late March to do outreach education on native food systems and youth involvement at local schools, and give a presentation at the state’s FFA convention.
“She continues to push herself to get into new experiences, developing presentations and speaking before new people,” Johnson said. “I’m very impressed by her, because I see her putting herself into these new areas and new avenues, and she’s getting so much out of it.”
Invigorated by her whirlwind of service projects, Yazzie said she’s extremely excited for the opportunity to develop professionally, and gain more experience as a young leader in food and agriculture.
In June 2015, Lucas Humblet (Oneida) was working in a machine shop recycling pallets when a chop saw accident took the pinkie finger off his left hand. Humblet, who’d been working in the shop for nearly a year since graduating high school the prior summer, decided it was time to reevaluate his career path. After a few months of soul searching and a talk with his sister about possibilities, he enrolled in an agriculture program the following September.
Today, Humblet is an aquaponics coordinator for the Oneida Nation Farm to School Program, studying sustainable food and agriculture systems at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Tattooed on the fingers of his left hand, are the symbols “< = >” symbolizing the idea that “less is more” – a minimalist description that reflects his minimalist lifestyle.
Humblet was also a student leader for this summer’s Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit who became engaged with youth mentoring after his younger brother Nate attended the 2015 Indian Agriculture Youth Alliance at the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. With a little convincing from Nate, Lucas decided to attend the #nativeyouthsummit in April at the Great Lakes Regional conference.
Humblet’s left hand
He heard about the summer summit while at the regional conference, and thought it sounded like something he’d be interested in. “So I applied and boom, they called me,” he said.
Humblet said his experience in Arkansas as a student leader was profound. “It was awesome, there was that sense of family there.” And with thoughts of being a teacher, he said the opportunity to have an impact on students only a few years younger than him was particularly meaningful. “Some of the youth, they look up to me, and I love that, I love the feeling, that I’m a part of something greater.”
Humblet is applying his education in sustainability and “less is more” philosophy to his work with the Oneida Nation Farm to School Program. He and his colleague Chris Brodhagen are setting up a greenhouse sized aquaponic operation to provide fresh fish and leafy green vegetables to the students of the Oneida School system.
Jesse Padron, director of food service for the program, said the aquaponic project is part of a larger food initiative by the Oneida Nation to improve the quality of food and nutritional education in the Oneida school district. And according to Padron, it’s working.
“The purpose of our program is to educate students at a young age about food sovereignty and sustainability, and why it’s important,” he said. “The two are not mutually exclusive.”
Humblet and Brodhagen hope to have the aquaponics system operational by early 2017.
Humblet agrees. He said it’s the efficiency and sustainability of aquaponics that draws him to the process, and he loves being able to help expand his tribe’s food systems and sovereignty through his work.
“At its core, aquaponics is a symbiotic, soilless growing system where fish waste feeds plants, and the plants purify the water cycling back for the fish,” he said. “In theory you could grow the [fish] food right there in the grow beds, and your only cost would be electricity and the initial inputs.”
If everything goes according to plan, Humblet said the operation should produce 800 to 1,200 heads of lettuce and around 900 lbs. of fish annually for the local community.
Humblet’s passion for “less is more” agriculture is apparent when he talks about the importance of small-scale, sustainable, independent food systems. He said he hopes to see a return to less centralized agriculture operations, where more food is grown and sourced locally, and communities like Oneida can feed their own people.
Humblet believes he is part of a movement among a growing number of Native American youth beginning to regain interest in the importance of agriculture and the important role of food systems in Native American communities.
“There’s a lot more youth that are interested in it (agriculture) than I actually expected,” he said. “I see that there is hope for the future, and that we have to be the ones to take the first steps, but once we take them who knows what will happen.”
By Colleen Keane
Special To The Times
When more than two dozen youth from southwestern tribe gathered recently for a Native youth agricultural summit, a roomful of dreams spilled out.
“My dream is to create a functional community garden and to bring back the traditional teachings that were taught to me,” said Kyle White, Diné from Crownpoint.
“My dream is to own an organic farm, create an educational component, and encourage Native American youth to learn about agriculture,” said Azelya Yazzie, Diné/Blackfeet from Montana, who now lives in San Diego, California.
“My dream is to carry on my traditional teachings so I can pass them along to my children when I have a family,” said Kayden Murphy, Diné, who is originally from Gallup. Murphy attends school in Moriarty. He added that he plans to start his own livestock processing plant back in the Gallup area after he finishes his education. The operation will be accessible to local ranchers so that middle man costs can be cut and income kept in the community.
Other tribal youth and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 envisioned creating sustainable housing, revitalizing indigenous farming, while becoming experts in environmental engineering, to mention a few more aspirations that surfaced during the three-day seminar held at the Santa Claran Hotel and Casino in Española, from Aug. 19-21.
The Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Regional Summit hosted by the University of Arkansas School of Law and the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) aims to engage tribal youth to become agricultural leaders in their communities. The sponsors host similar regional and national seminars around the country. Enrolled tribal youth or tribal descendants are eligible to apply.
“The hope is that the younger generations will be food producers so they can be great leaders in the future,” said Bryan Pollard, Director of Tribal Relations for the Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative.
To attend, students had to complete the application, provide references and explain how they have taken on community leadership roles and have helped their communities with agricultural initiatives.
Food sovereignty was the underlying theme of the seminar.
“We wouldn’t be so dependent on the federal government if we produced our own food,” IAC board member Zach Duchenaux, Cheyenne River Sioux, told the students. By doing this, he said that there would be no more food deserts in tribal communities, referring to the scarcity of fresh fruits and vegetables, and unprocessed foods.
“We need to go back to our traditions and get away from eating junk food and going to fast food restaurants,” said Murphy who is a freshman at Moriarty High School.
“There are a lot of people with diabetes,” he noted.
Added White, “Where I live it’s very rural and isolated. We have to travel one hour away to get access to fresh produce.”
Continuing, Duchenaux talked about the need to rebuild the food system in tribal communities. “This is a movement!” he emphasized.
To provide youth with the skills and knowledge they need to become agricultural experts, the seminar gave them inside information on how to start businesses, capture the food dollar, secure loans, and become USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified organic farmers.
Raphael Nevins, one of the founders of Healthy Futures, an organization that helps farms become organically certified, told the students that there’s a great need for Native American owned enterprises.
“In New Mexico there are only three Native American farms and organizations that are certified organic,” he stated.
Healthy Futures is creating a digital application that will help with the process.
According to Nevins, the electronic notebook will allow growers to collect field data offline they need for USDA organic farming applications, like the types of seeds they are planting, or the fertilizer they are using, and then upload it when they get to Internet access. The app should be available this coming spring.
“All of this is within your grasp!” Nevins exclaimed referring to the ability to make their dreams reality.
He added that they can get assistance from regional university extension servicers that are located throughout the country.
Duchenaux noted that there’s plenty of funds to tap into, referring to the Bureau of Indian Affairs annual $2.9 billion budget, Indian Health Services $5.1 billion budget and casino revenue estimated at $34 billion.
When it comes to securing funds he told them to never take “no” for an answer. Giving an example, he described how IAC secured a 90% discount on a federal conservation program after first being told it was unachievable.
The initiative encourages mentorships between youth, tribal leaders, and agricultural experts.
White said that he and about 30 other youth from five schools in Crownpoint receive support from former Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim through a grass roots organization called Navajo Community Health Outreach.
“We are establishing a community garden,” said White adding that the group also conducts healthy food demonstrations and makes presentation of their work. White mentioned that the Bread Loaf School of English in Santa Fe, provides tutoring in writing and creating presentations.
When Murphy returns to Gallup to start his local business, he said the first person he is going to turn to is his grandpa, who he said has been working on Navajo Nation lands for may years.
Yazzie said that her mentor is Kier Johnson-Reyes, Osage Nation.
“He opened so many doors for me. Ever since then, he started mentoring me, I’ve been active in agriculture more than I expected to be. It is really great!” she said.
Yazzie mentioned that she hopes that other students have the opportunity to participate in Native youth agricultural summits, so that they can develop their skills and can return to help their communities.
“I think we have to stand up right now and educate our people on what we are eating and why it’s bad for us. We can benefit each other by growing our own food and becoming sustainable and sovereign,” she said
For more information, indianaglink.com/youth.
Odessa Oldham, the 24-year-old agricultural entrepreneur and citizen of the Navajo Nation was recently named a Farm Credit 100 Fresh Perspective honoree and invited to speak in Washington, D.C., about the importance of agriculture and the small farmer and rancher.
Oldham, the camp director for the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit, has deep family ties to agriculture. She said that agriculture has always been a part of her family’s lifestyle.
“On my Navajo family’s side, my grandmother had sheep and cows. And on my dad’s side, he came from horses and his grandparents had cattle and horses here in Lander.”
She said her father instilled valuable agricultural experience in her and her siblings by getting them involved with a 4H booster club at a very young age.
“My dad got us all showing (sheep) at the age of three, and we started our own sheep herd without even really knowing it,” she said, laughing.
To teach practical money management skills and an understanding of costs, Oldham’s father required her and her siblings to pay the costs associated with competing in 4H and maintaining their herd upfront with the money they earned from winning.
After moving to Wyoming at age 13, Oldham said she joined FFA, and soon after she and her brother began a small cattle operation with seven heifers. Since those beginnings, she and her siblings have transformed their small herd into more than 400 head of cattle on their Wyoming ranch
“We were running someone else’s cattle at the time, and my older brother figured it would be so much more beneficial if they were our own.”
It’s not hard to see why Oldham was asked by Farm Credit to speak on agricultural leadership and the importance of the small farmer. She’s the former FFA vice president of Wyoming and the first Native American to run for a national FFA office. She has also worked with Dr. Larry Case, former National FFA advisor, to help charter FFA chapters on reservations and was also involved with the start of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative.
Currently, Oldham is in school finishing up her agricultural communications degree at the University of Wyoming, and working on a wild horse sanctuary that her father began working on more than two years ago. The sanctuary is one of only three eco-sanctuaries in the United States. She hopes to study agriculture business in graduate school and continue applying her education toward her work.
“My biggest hope right now is to make a difference in Indian Country – a positive difference in agriculture, in education and our economy,” she said. “(The Intertribal Agriculture Council) has already done an amazing job on stimulating Native American owned operations, and I want to continue that.”
When Oldham was asked to speak as a Farm Credit honoree, she said she felt extremely honored and excited. She said her speech focused on the importance of engaging youth and educating the public on the full extent of agriculture and why it’s vital to society.
Oldham’s advice to any beginning farmer, rancher or individual interested in beginning an agriculture operation is to not be afraid to ask questions.
Odessa Oldham (left) speaking on This Week in Agribusiness with hosts Max Armstrong (center) and Orion Samuelson (right).
“They need to go out and do their homework, that’s the biggest thing,” Oldham said. “There’s a lot of risk involved and there’s different things you’ve got to learn to mitigate.”
It’s not only Farm Credit who’s noticed Oldham’s agricultural acumen either. She spoke on This Week In Agribusiness, June 23, to to speak about her ranch operations and advocate for youth involvement in agriculture as well.
Despite her success, the young rancher remains humble, and acknowledges how lucky she’s been to have family members who can act in a mentor capacity, providing advice when needed.
Zach Ilbery (Cherokee) was recently honored at the Farm Credit 100 Fresh Perspectives in Agriculture centennial celebration in Washington D.C. The 17-year-old agricultural entrepreneur and Indigenous Youth in Agriculture Leadership Summit fellow was recognized in the Beginning Farmer and Rancher category for his dedication and leadership in agriculture.
The 100 Fresh Perspective honorees are individuals throughout the United States selected for their contribution and work toward shaping the future of agriculture.
“There were over 1,000 people nominated, and I’m honored to be in the top 100,” Ilbery said.
Ilbery was also recognized for his achievement at the Oklahoma State Capitol in May, along with fellow Oklahoman Fresh Perspective honorees State Rep. Scott Biggs and Leland Walker.
“It was a wonderful day,” Ilbery said, who, while at the State Capital, learned that Oklahoma Ag Credit would be paying for he and his family to travel to D.C. and attend the Farm Credit Centennial celebration in June.
Zach Ilbery (center), with his mother Dena Kay Davidson Miller, and step-father Vaughn Miller.
The celebration consisted of three days with discussions on rural infrastructure and youth in agriculture, a congressional reception that featured local producers, and an award luncheon where the attending honorees were each recognized with a plaque.
“It was a great experience, and it’s opened up countless windows” Ilbery said. “A while ago I thought to be in agriculture you had to be in the production side of things, but with being honored and being able to travel, I’ve learned that it’s not just in the production aspect, because you have to have people to create policy to help with agricultural aspects. You can’t just be on the production side, you have to have laws, you have to have people there to back you.”
The young agriculturalist was even offered an internship with Oklahoma Farm Credit next summer in D.C.
“D.C. is a great place and I’ll be happy to visit anytime and every time I’m allowed, but I do not want to live in the city that’s for sure,” he said. “I like my ranch and hayfield and everything I get to do back home in wonderful little Checotah, Oklahoma.”
Ilbery, who just graduated high school, said that he plans to attend Seminole State College in the fall to study agricultural education.
“The reason I chose ag ed is because as an agricultural education instructor you don’t only teach students about the importance of agriculture, you actually have the ability as a teacher to mold and transform a student’s life.”
Ilbery speaks from experience: a product of the kindness shown to him by his own instructor a few years earlier when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“My ag teacher helped me out in a way that no one had ever helped me before,” he said. “During that time my grandpa and all of them were at the hospital but I couldn’t get out of school until evening, so my ag teacher let me live with him.”
“I feel like it’s a way to give back to my community because my community gave so much to me.”
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.
Lena Sanchez received $1500 for winning the New Mexico Native American Economic Summit’s Shark Tank Challenge.
“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.”