By Kerry Hoffschneider
Cherilyn Yazzie and her husband, Mike Hester, are not looking to expand their farm’s land base, just the opposite in fact. They are doing everything they can to grow as much they can in a half-acre, and they are finding great success doing just that at Coffee Pot Farms in Dilkon, Ariz.
“To me, this COVID-19 has shown us a lot of our, I guess, ‘weaknesses.’ In that, is where we need to be working on our opportunities,” Yazzie said.
The opportunities are truly everywhere at Coffee Pot Farms where they are growing everything from corn, beans, and squash, to melons, zucchini, radishes, lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, spinach, and Japanese turnips. Hester said, it really is true, it’s all about what the customer wants and providing that. This is something he and Yazzie learned firsthand by participating in a pilot project with the National Science Foundation – Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps™) called Culturally Relevant Enterprise Development, that dealt specifically with identifying customers and tailoring businesses to their needs.
Hester outlined some key, fundamental marketing questions. How much are customers willing to buy? What is their budget? Are they willing to purchase from local growers and what do they want? He also poised this question that all farmers should be asking themselves, “Why would I grow spinach and waste all that time and water and effort if no one is going to buy it? That’s where the customer discovery process comes into play.”
During the NSF I-Corps™ training, they had the opportunity to interview people in their target audience. Hester said, “We realized people are wanting fresh produce and wanting to buy local even if it involves paying a little bit more. They are willing to spend the extra money for quality, locally-grown produce.”
But, as most farmers would attest, it is about more than making an income, Yazzie explained, “My background is in social work and public health. I did that for many, many years. I got into this line of work because there was just a need to really have more fresh produce on the Navajo reservation.”
Food deserts, chronic disease and other factors that stem from the lack of fresh food products, was the impetus to venture out and begin growing it themselves, she said, “That is what this journey is about, looking at what is happening and trying to figure out how to bring more farmers along.”
Hester explained they grow this nutritionally-dense food in a lush and densely-populated space brimming with produce and other plants, “We grow in high-tunnels and hoop houses and utilize up-to-date tools and growing techniques that are not common on the reservation. The main purpose behind what we are doing is so we can grow year-round and provide produce year-round.”
“In the last couple months, we delivered 150 to 250 pounds of lettuce to the Navajo Hop Relief Fund,” he went on, noting they are, “Focusing on crops that grow quickly and that we can harvest multiple times. That allows us to be more profitable as a farm.”
Purchasing from a high-quality seed producer is also imperative, Hester adamantly pointed out, “We invest in high-quality seeds from Johnny Selected Seeds located in the Northeastern United States. With those seeds there is a very good germination rate and we are not having a lot of loss when it comes to plants . . . We focus on crops that are 60 to 90 days from the time that you plant to the time you harvest.”
The couple is adapting to COVID challenges and are in the foundational stages of starting an online store. Yazzie said getting up to speed with technology is a learning process. They have also developed their own version of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box of produce offerings, she explained, “Back in March, when COVID-19 hit ,the three products we had were spinach, eggs and lettuce. We wanted to provide and offer something and that is how our 18-week egg share program started. We are down to our 14th or 15th week.”
“We have really learned logistics and scheduling and we know what we need to do to do better, so that is one part. The other part is, as the season goes along, what we are doing is creating a food box,” she went on this “box” started out with three products and now the boxes will be bigger, with different food items available. “Lasts week we had eggs and Chinese cabbage, lettuce, turnips, kale and squash. As things come available, we will add more and as we have cropped out a certain vegetable, we will substitute with something else.”
It’s all about connecting with the soil, each other and the sustenance therein, Yazzie said, “If there is going to be a change, it has to be through people touching the food.”
Want to hear more? Please listen to our extended interview on our IAC Resiliency through Agriculture podcast series: https://bit.ly/3gO84Q3
You can remain in touch with the exciting happenings at Coffee Pot Farms by following them on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/navajoproduce/
Learn more about American Indian Foods at: http://www.indianagfoods.org/
Follow the National Science Foundation at: https://www.facebook.com/US.NSF/