Growing Strawberries in the Navajo Food Desert

Nestled in the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation within the Little Colorado River Watershed, Tolani Lake Enterprises, Inc., (TLE) is an ANA SEDS grantee, and primarily serves the communities of Tolani Lake, Leupp, and Birdsprings. Their project, The Dine' Small Farm and Ranch Development Partnership, began last September and runs through 2020.

Authored by Stephanie Le-Charles Hall, the Executive Director of TLE.

Our elders tell us that the Diné (Navajo), were customarily farmers overseeing vast fields of corn, beans, squash, and other crops. It was regular practice to gather wild grapes, walnuts, prickly pears, and wild tea, and we seasoned our food with wild onions and carrots. We had elaborate trade systems that provided our people with apricots, fish, acorns, and the wonderfully assorted foods from other tribes in our region.

Like many indigenous communities, our complex food systems were disrupted forcefully, sometimes violently, and were replaced with government rations often consisting of flour, coffee, and potatoes. Our mothers and fathers were sent to boarding schools, and the knowledge of how to grow and prepare foods, speak our language, and practice our cultural norms were replaced with western ideologies. Nowadays, many of us can only imagine the complex food system that once provided our people with the diverse nutrients required to have healthy bodies.

This broken food system persists and is most notably acknowledged by the high rates of diabetes and other food-related diseases rampant in our communities. Because the Navajo Nation has only 13 grocery stores scattered throughout a land base equivalent to the size of South Carolina, we are known as one of the largest food deserts in the United States. Many of our people must travel from 60-120 miles roundtrip to the nearest grocery store to purchase fresh produce. They have much easier access to convenience stores stocked to the brim with candies, sodas, chips, and canned foods. Farm production in our region is now limited to seasonal growth by a small handful of farmers. Our traditional growing areas are overrun by tamarisk and other invasive species.

Yet, all is not lost. There is growing momentum to heal this broken food system. And like new growth after a devastating fire, this momentum is sprouting from the most unlikely places, strawberries.  

Growing strawberries at TLE started as an experiment with lasagna beds. Building a lasagna bed is a soil-building method that mimics the earth’s natural soil making process and involves layering cardboard, newspaper, vegetable scraps, straw, compost, and mulch. Because the soil in Tolani Lake is very sandy, doesn't hold water, and lacks nutrients, our team built up lasagna beds. We knew we could grow corn, beans, and squash, and we planted different varieties of these staples. But we didn't know what else we could grow in our region. So, we also planted a variety of things including sunflowers, grapes, leafy greens, strawberries, and other experimental crops in the community garden.

That first year, youth enrolled in our summer program cared for the community garden. They were tasked with caring for everything that was planted in the garden, but more often than not, our youth participants gravitated to the strawberries with curiosity, a bit of doubt, but with stubborn hope. They worked the lasagna beds, particularly the bed that contained the strawberries, attentively and with purpose.

Growing strawberries is tricky enough for an experienced gardener in ideal growing conditions. Growing strawberries in Tolani Lake is anything but ideal. It’s hot, sometimes reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s very dry and windy. Under the direction of TLE’s master gardeners, and after about five months of hard work to keep the strawberries alive, watching them grow from tiny green buds to bright red berries, anticipating the taste of their sweetness, our summer youth successfully harvested their strawberries. By that time, the strawberries had become theirs.

TLE doesn’t grow strawberries every year. But when we do, we know at the very least the young people who help come away with the knowledge that it is possible to grow a delicate, sweet berry in harsh, desert conditions. It sparks their curiosity and encourages them to experiment with growing fruits and vegetables in their own spaces.

Every year, the number of aspiring growers applying to be a part of our summer youth program increases. By the end of each summer experience, our youth participants leave with the knowledge that they are building on the momentum that will heal this broken food systems and will bring Hózhó (balance, health, beauty) back into the lives of our people.