Church’s Welfare Program Restores the Ancient Knowledge of Gardening to the Navajo Nation

Contributed By Valerie Durrant, LDS.org Church News staff writer

  • 10 November 2017

A flourishing garden produced with the help of the Church’s welfare program in the Navajo and Hopi Nations.

Article Highlights

  • The Church’s welfare program has been helping Native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico grow their own gardens since 2009.

Nothing about the climate of northern Arizona screams agriculture. Sandstone, alkaline soil, 114 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, high winds, and lack of rain all combine to create a very unfavorable climate for growing produce.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Church’s Native American Garden Initiative has brought to members of the Navajo and Hopi Nations: a chance to grow their own garden.

Anciently, the Navajo people have always grown crops like corn, but somewhere along the line, the knowledge of how to cultivate produce in the harsh climate was lost. When today’s generation learns how to grow their own garden, they are simply returning to an age-old knowledge, restoring the traditions of their ancestors.

For Melvin Mike of the Window Rock Ward, participation in the garden project restored a knowledge that he had cultivated as a young boy. Growing up in Many Farms, Arizona, about 70 miles north of Fort Defiance, where he currently lives, Melvin remembers planting a garden every year with his family. But as he says, “I had forgotten all about that garden until four years ago,” when he and his wife, Evelyn, heard about the Church’s provident living classes.

Evelyn and Melvin Mike, members of the Window Rock Ward who live in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, with their grandson, Jacob Keith. Photo by Geri Keith.

The Mikes’ garden in Fort Defiance, Arizona. With the help of the Church’s Welfare Program, many members from the Navajo and Hopi nations have been able to cultivate and harvest prosperous gardens, despite adverse weather and soil. Photo by Geri Keith.

Equipped with the resources provided by the Church, Melvin was able to plant a 60-by-100-foot garden that yields enough produce not only to provide for his family throughout the winter but also to sell to members of the community as well. He says others in the community have taken notice of the flourishing garden. Other Church members in Fort Defiance have gardens, but as Melvin says, “The rest don’t garden. They’ve all forgotten their past.”

And it’s not only nearby neighbors who have recognized the success of the Mikes’ garden. This year, Evelyn entered their produce in the Navajo Nation Fair—the largest American Indian Fair within the southwest United States, which boasts an average daily visitor count of 15,000—and won first prize in many categories.

In the Navajo Nation Fair, the Mikes won first place for many of their vegetables, including this corn stalk. Photo by Geri Keith.

The Mikes’ garden harvest includes corn, squash, zucchini, green beans, pinto beans, jalapenos, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, and onions. They have been able to can some of the vegetables and use them all winter long.

The Mikes’ garden produces enough squash and zucchini to last them through the winter and sell the excess to members of their community. Photo by Geri Keith.

The blessing of having a garden for members of the Navajo and Hopi Nations extends beyond the nutritional value of the food, though the fresh vegetables have indeed brought added nourishment to their diets. Working in the garden also brings the family closer together and teaches the children how to work hard. 

Richard Long oversees the Church’s Welfare Department in North America. “It’s much better for us to provide them with this expertise than it is for trucks to come down and deliver groceries,” he said of the program, which helps people experience the blessing of working hard and becoming self-reliant.

When the program first started in 2009, there were just 25 gardens. Today, that number has grown to 2,000 gardens, each representing hope for self-reliance and bringing families closer together. Although it’s a Church-sponsored program, anyone in the community who will commit to the whole program can participate.

Richard Long estimates that participation is split half and half between members and nonmembers. What started as a way to help members become more self-reliant has become a great missionary tool, with much success happening in local communities. The Pinon Branch in 2014 alone baptized 24 people. 

Brother Long also says that many of the children have taken ownership of the gardens, and they find it exciting to see a seed come to fruition and produce vegetables. When the children work alongside their parents in the garden, they are learning a lifelong skill that will continue to bless generations to come.

For the Mikes, it’s just the two of them working on the garden, and they rely on neighbors and missionaries who help them plow the whole plot each year with a tractor. But they know that ultimately, it is the Lord who helps them bring their crops to harvest.

“If I don’t give my garden a blessing,” Melvin says, “then [the vegetables] are kind of sick.” But as he prays for help from the Lord each month, the family has been able to produce healthy crops that continue to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that in the day of restoration, “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1).

The climate of northern Arizona and New Mexico, with its sandstone, alkaline soil, 114 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, high winds, and lack of rain, is not favorable for growing produce. With the help of the Church’s welfare program, there are now 2,000 gardens being grown by members of the Navajo and Hopi Nations.

A man plows his garden in preparation for planting as part of the Native American Garden Initiative.

Being able to grow fresh produce in their own gardens has been a blessing to members of the Navajo and Hopi Nations.