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A Hopi farmer is using ancient practices to grow crops in Arizona — with no irrigation

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

In the West, ongoing drought and drier future are forcing us all to think about how we use water differently.

One farmer up in northern Arizona is using ancient practices to grow food.

The Show visited Hopi farmer and University of Arizona faculty Michael Kotutwa Johnson about 90 minutes north of Flagstaff, where his fields are located. He explained the ways he grows corn, squash and beans and why he wants native seeds repatriated back to Indigenous communities like his.

Interview highlights

When Michael Kuta Johnson walks through his fields in the high desert of northern Arizona, he can hear the corn talk to him.

"Early in the morning or in the evening. It's just that you can hear them talking because they're just, they just, they just, it's a cool sound," said Johnson.

It's Hopi corn, an ancient variety that Johnson's family has been growing on this land on the Hopi reservation for nearly 100 years.

"So when you're out here hoeing weeds, you're out here talking to them. And you're also, you know, touching them and you get very intimate with this corn. You know, you can hear the leaves rustling, and they're just waking up," he said.

The corn is not just a crop to Johnson — it's a family member of sorts. A being, for sure. And part of a long tradition, his grandfather taught him and he carries on today.

"I'm growing a few things. I'm growing about four different varieties of Hopi corn and some beans and also some gourds and squash up here," he said.

But looking around this windy high desert field, you won't see the kind of farmland you might expect.

For one, there's not a tree in sight for miles. The dirt is dry and dusty. You can see Flagstaff's San Francisco peaks in the distance. But there, like a kind of mirage in the desert, are bright green stalks popping out of the ground.

"It's kind of unique out here. It's kind of like a semi-desert out here. We don't get any irrigation," said Johnson. "This corn that we're looking at is an early corn that I put in in April, the end of April. And so it hasn't had water in over 60 days, but you can tell the vibrancy and the greenness of it how well it's doing."

That's right. He grows these crops without any irrigation. It's called dry Hopi farming. It's an ancient practice that uses only the water that falls from the sky to grow crops every year.

That's about 6 to 10 inches of annual rainfall in this region. Without irrigation, Johnson uses a variety of techniques perfected over millennia to grow his crops, from planting clumps of seeds, 6 feet apart from one another to planting seeds 18 inches deep to seep whatever moisture lives in the Earth.

"We had an abundance of snowfall this year and that's what really makes our crops thrive, and that's why we don't have to irrigate. Our next big thing will be the monsoon rains to fill out the kernel cobs and also to fill out the bean pods, which will happen usually usually at the last week of July," Johnson said. "That's when it hits us out here. But everything by then should be pretty well grown, start be starting to tassel and everything like that and we should have a pretty good harvest this year."

Johnson isn't just a farmer, although he has taken on the stewardship of his family's land and doesn't plan on letting it go anytime soon.

Today, people also call him Dr. Michael Kutu Johnson. He's an assistant specialist in indigenous resiliency at the School of Natural Resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, and a sought after resource on his culture's farming practices worldwide.

"I myself call myself about a 253rd generation farmer here. You know, I like to kind of joke around about that because, you know, I have colleagues in Iowa and Nebraska who are farmers too and they can only get about two, three generations back. So it's kind of fun," Johnson said.

It was summer on his farm, months before any crops would be ready for harvest. But it was clear, walking through the rows with him and talking about the practice, it's not really about how much is harvested that much he feels is out of his hands. It's about tradition and culture and history.

"We're an agricultural society," he said. "You know, we — I would feel like we're kind of like America's original farmers. You know, we've been doing this from the get go."

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.