Fit for farming
Students, community revive interest in regenerative agriculture at the Old Fort.
A revival of interest in regenerative agriculture is underway in the Four Corners, and Fort Lewis College has the tools to back anyone who wants to join this venerable movement. In the wake of supply chain disruptions and heightened food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sentient students, faculty, and alumni can’t get back to the land fast enough to revamp traditional, sustainable food systems.
“We were hearing from students that they wanted to not only learn how to grow their own food but also receive training in holistic food systems,” says Kathy Hilimire, associate professor of Environment & Sustainability. “They wanted to understand where their food was coming from, the behind-the-scenes politics, and what kind of food systems careers they could pursue.”
To meet demands for more agriculture-based academic programs, Hilimire came to FLC in 2012 to help build a curriculum around sustainable food systems. This curriculum launched in 2020 as the Regenerative Food Systems Certificate. As a resume-boosting add-on to any major, the RFSC is one of many pathways where students can further develop their understanding of and hone their skills in the landscape of foodscapes. For many students, this includes deepening their knowledge of Indigenous farming traditions.
“Planting and growing was a big part of our way of life a long time ago,” says Brandon Francis, who grew up dryland farming in Black Mesa on the Navajo Nation. “It’s deeply linked to our culture and customs. If we lose any part of it, we lose our connection to the earth. During the pandemic, we realized the vulnerability of our food systems, so right now, we’re in the middle of a time of high interest on the reservation. How can we nurture that?”
One way that Francis encourages this current wave of awareness is through gardening workshops he creates and hosts around the region. In his research and dissemination, he emphasizes the crossroads of modern agriculture and traditional farming techniques, based on information he’s collected from his grandparents and his five years spent delving into Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. When he came to FLC in 2014, Francis dug into any opportunity he could to learn more about sustainable agriculture. He volunteered with FLC’s Environmental Center and at the Old Fort in Hesperus 20 miles west of campus, a bucolic 6,000 acres stretching from the banks of the La Plata River.
From 1880 till 1910, these stolen Indigenous lands were utilized as Fort Lewis, a U.S. military outpost, and a federal Indian boarding school, with some of the infrastructure from both dark eras still standing. As the original location of Fort Lewis College, the land is owned by the State Land Board and, since 2010, managed by FLC through a beneficial use agreement. As Fort Lewis College and the community at large grapple with how the past can inform the next chapter of this land, a resurgence of regenerative agricultural practices is laying the groundwork for a healthy beginning. After all, an ecosystem of farm fields, hay fields, ponderosa pine forests, oak brush, sage brush, and a river running through it all, keeps perspective shifting back to where healing and hope reside: in the land itself.
“Working on former boarding school land as a Native person, I felt conflicted because of the history,” says Ana Henry (Cherokee Nation), a senior majoring in Environmental Studies, minoring in Biology, and pursuing her Regenerative Food Systems Certificate. “My grandpa was a boarding school survivor. He never really talked about it. But I feel like the work we do as farmers, getting food to people, is positive and transformative. And nurturing the earth in this way is really therapeutic, just to be outside in the dirt every day. It was healing for me, and for the land.”
“I feel like the work we do as farmers, getting food to people, is positive and transformative. And nurturing the earth in this way is really therapeutic, just to be outside in the dirt every day. It was healing for me, and for the land.”
— Ana Henry (Cherokee Nation), Senior, Environmental Studies
There are three points of entry for farmer hopefuls at the Old Fort: internships, a farmer incubator option, and the Farmer-in-Training program. Since 2006, the Old Fort internships have provided a platform for folks who have never farmed before and want to know more about how food is grown while exploring food systems career options. Some apply their new skills to backyard gardening, while others go on to become professional farmers. The farmer incubator program was designed in 2013 for this latter group, catering to farmers who want to start their own businesses. Fields to Plate, run by FLC alumni Max Fields (Environmental Studies, ’15) and James Plate (Business Administration – Agricultural Business, ’14) and Outlier Farm, operated by Max Kirks (Environmental Studies, ’14), are two examples of successful incubators that began at the Old Fort.
To serve the in-between group of people who know they want to farm but have little experience, the Old Fort launched the Farmer-in-Training program in 2016, which fosters farm learning in a cooperative setting. Both Francis and Henry are graduates of the FIT program.
“We really try to give that group some autonomy, so they can learn how to make farm decisions and learn from their mistakes,” says Elicia Whittlesey, Farmer Training program coordinator. “It’s important they see the stressful and intense side, so they can decide if they want to do that for a career. It’s more than a hard day’s work; farming helps them find their voice and feel more grounded.”
NAAF beneficiary Daelyn Benally (Diné) holds leeks
FIT Class of 2021: Kyle Sanders (Cherokee Nation) bunches carrots in the FIT field.
2021 intern Halley Noon helps with the harvest
FIT Class of 2021: Ana Henry (Cherokee Nation) bunches carrots in the FIT field.
2021 intern Lorin Whitaker eats a carrot
Sophia Kusumoto-Puryear, Old Fort Education Garden manager, washes beets
2021 intern Callie Truett packs peppers.
For the 2021 growing season, five FITs oversaw the acre-plus plot set aside for their training purposes. They managed every aspect of the field, from digging ruts for potatoes to cleaning out the irrigation ditch and of course weeding, weeding, weeding, which mostly takes place over the hottest days of the year.
“We’d be out there in the heat laughing like crazy people,” says Henry, a 2021 FIT. “We were just so hot and tired, we’d lay down in the dirt. At three o’clock, we’d eat popsicles or go jump in the reservoir to cool off.”
“It’s more than a hard day’s work; farming helps them find their voice and feel more grounded.”
— Elicia Whittlesey, Farmer Training program coordinator
When Henry first showed up at the Old Fort in May, she had little experience in farming. By the end of the season, she was sad to say goodbye to a newfound community of farmers and friends but returned to the classroom with a wheelbarrow full of newfound knowledge.
“I had no idea what I was doing, but [the program is] really immersive and conducive to learning,” says Henry. “I felt like I was never out of the loop and that I always had someone to ask. I feel like I’m a different person after this summer. It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had.”
The success of this summer’s FIT program would not have been possible without scholarships from the Native American Agriculture Fund, the largest philanthropic organization devoted solely to serving the Native American farming and ranching community. This summer, the NAAF provided Henry and two other FITs, Daelyn Benally and Kyle Sanders, with a $2,000 living stipend each as well as an hourly wage. The NAAF also supported two student interns who worked on food sovereignty issues across the Navajo Nation with Sixth World Solutions, a grassroots organization based in Lupton, Arizona. Hilimire co-coordinated the grant programs with support from Whittlesey, Beth LaShell, coordinator of the Old Fort, Keri Brandt Off, chair and professor of Sociology & Human Services, and Rebecca Clausen, professor of Sociology & Human Services.
“Farming is a path that requires a lot of resources to embark upon,” says Hilimire. “Often the first step is doing an unpaid apprenticeship. But this creates inequities. Students who are balancing work may end up compromising. How can we remove that first barrier of getting paid? We want to welcome all students to create their own dream internship or apply for anything under the sun and have food, housing, and an hourly wage. Our students are poised to be the next leaders in food systems and we can help them prepare themselves by stepping out in this way.”