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Navajo farmer bringing local, fresh food to her community’s tables

After years of working in public health, Cherilyn Yazzie returned to her grandparents’ farm on the Navajo Nation to feed her neighbors fresh, healthy food.
Credit: Coffee Pot Farms

DILKON, Ariz. — Farming is in Cherilyn Yazzie's blood. She comes from a family of Navajo farmers. In fact, her grandparents owned a 35-acre cornfield in Dilkon, about 90 miles east of Flagstaff. 

However, Yazzie was encouraged from a young age to leave farming behind and go to school to get a degree. So, that’s what she did.

“My previous work has been in public health,” Yazzie said. “I was a program manager through Navajo County and did a lot of nutrition education throughout the county.”

One thing she said she noticed when traveling throughout the county teaching people about eating healthy foods, is that her lessons didn’t align with the residents’ realities. For many people on the Nation, there is limited access to grocery stores, budgets tend to be tight and often they must travel off the Nation to get produce making it difficult for them to access and actually eat healthy, fresh food.

It didn’t add up. Yazzie said she felt she had to do something to correct it.

“If part of the Navajo Nation’s culture is to grow food, agriculture, why is it there’s not a lot of us doing this?” Yazzie asked. “That was part of the reason I left my full-time position and started Coffee Pot Farms.”

After leaving her job she returned to her grandparents' land, but she had never farmed before. So, she and her husband, Mike, decided to start small and began farming a half-acre area of the farm’s land in 2018.

Despite the naturally dry, hot weather in Arizona and a lack of running water on the farm, she and her husband haul water to the farm from 20 miles away, Yazzie began successfully growing food in the market style of farming.

With market farming, Yazzie is growing crops that can be harvested within 60 days or less. This quick turnover allows for many different crops to be grown within a season and accomplishes her goal of exposing people to a variety of different foods.

Yazzie sells Coffee Pot Farms’ produce through something known as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership. At the beginning of the growing season, someone wanting the farm’s produce would pay upfront and receive a box of fresh produce usually on a bi-weekly basis when it's harvested. 

“We make a commitment to each other. You know that I’m going to do my best to grow everything I can for that season and throughout the weeks we would share some of our produce,” Yazzie said. “So you’re going to get some of those fresh tomatoes, zucchini, watermelons and you’re going to get greens.”

Her hard work and planning are paying off. The feedback she receives from clients is overwhelmingly positive and she’s accomplishing a goal that dates back to her work in public health: getting people to try foods they may not have tried before and them enjoying them.

“They know when things are grown from the ground it means more. It’s kind of like a blessing from the Earth,” Yazzie said. “So, they’re very thankful because they know it tastes different. It’s really nice to see them eat our vegetables.”

One of the most surprising outcomes of her farming, Yazzie said, has been the interest from other would-be farmers. They’ve asked her to give them a tour of the farm to see how she does it. Her work is proof that it’s possible to grow a large amount of food on a small amount of land.

“The half-acre that we’re growing on has shown people that it can be done on a smaller scale. You can grow a lot of food in a small area and it can be manageable,” she said.

In order to keep her business going through the pandemic, Yazzie partnered with the web hosting company GoDaddy. She participated in a docuseries produced by GoDaddy called “Made in America,” which chronicles entrepreneurs in underserved communities working to grow their businesses. The series is in its third season and focuses on Yazzie and other small business owners in the Phoenix area.

To keep growing her business, Yazzie said she hopes to one day increase the acreage of farmed land at Coffee Pot Farms. To do that she will need to dig a well on the property to get direct access to water. The cost of the well, $50,000, is high, so she has set up a GoFundMe in order to make that dream a reality.

She also hopes to add more members to her CSA membership and continue educating future farmers on small-scale farming.

“People are wanting to know how to grow food," she said. "They want to do it themselves and I think that’s very important."

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