by Eleanor Reagan

The San Xavier Farm Coop, located outside Tuscon, Arizona, is establishing a grain mill to further strengthen their commitment to revitalize the agriculture and food sovereignty of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The mill addresses a significant challenge faced by indigenous farmers—the lack of local milling and processing facilities that can process greater quantities than the traditional, “maccud” or metate’s/grinding stones O’odham farmers used to grind flour and pound dried meat. As production has increased, farmers have had to transport their crops long distances for milling, resulting in added expenses and diminished control over product quality.

To overcome this obstacle, the San Xavier Farm Coop has taken matters into their own hands by harvesting, cleaning and processing seed by hand and establishing a local onsite hammermill. This initiative not only ensures higher quality products but also reduces transportation costs and bolsters the local economy. By maintaining control over the entire production process, from cultivation to milling, farmers can preserve the integrity and distinct flavors of their heritage crops. The mill also opens up new market opportunities within the community and beyond, fostering economic growth and sustainability.

Beyond providing milling services, the San Xavier Farm Coop Mill plays a vital role in preserving indigenous seeds and crop diversity. Through its seed stewardship, the coop safeguards and reintroduces heirloom varieties that are deeply intertwined with the cultural heritage of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Amy Juan, the farm’s administrative manager, explains, “We want to work to make sure that we’re not only producing seed for feed or sale but to preserve culture and foodways.” This commitment to the continued cultivation of drought and heat-tolerant crops like 60-day corn and Wihol, the O’odham pea, is crucial to the region’s agriculture in the face of climate crises.

Water conservation has always been essential to agriculture in the Tohono O’odham Nation, dating back to the ancestral village of Wa:k. Throughout history, families have farmed the land using an intricate canal system to irrigate fields and engaged in trade with neighboring villages for essential resources like salt. However, the enactment of the General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, by the United States Congress in 1887 brought significant changes. The act authorized the division of Indian tribal land into individual allotments, fragmenting the land and shifting the responsibility of food production to individual families. This, coupled with the disappearance of surface flow along the Santa Cruz River due to down cutting and groundwater pumping by the City of Tucson, led to a decline in O’odham agriculture in San Xavier.

In 1971, a group of San Xavier Allottees came together to fight for water rights in the State of Arizona and won, establishing the Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act (SWARSA). This led to creating a cooperative of landowners who initiated the creation of the farm as a means of utilizing water allocated to the Tohono O’odham Nation. Their mission was also to piece together fragmented lands and revive community-based farming practices. This cooperative spirit laid the foundation for the San Xavier Cooperative Farm, which has since become a force driving positive change in the local agricultural landscape.