The power of resiliency at Gila River Farms

By: Zac DeJovine, ASU Food Systems graduate student.

As a part of our week-long Sustainability Food Systems immersive trip, my classmates and I visited Gila River Farms on December 6th in order to get a look at one of the most prominent and promising local agriculture projects here in the Valley of the Sun. Agriculture has a long history in the Phoenix area. From the Hohokam people and their irrigation canals, all the way up to the historic Gila River water settlement in 2004, agriculture and water usage have helped shape the story of the valley, much as a river shapes the landscapes it traverses. The Gila River used to traverse the valley, providing a much-needed lifeline in the middle of an expansive desert. But the droves of settlers coming to Phoenix since the late 1800s, and the resultant demand for irrigation, soon dried up this lynchpin of the ecosystem, altering life downstream massively.

Perhaps more than anyone else, the people of the Gila River Indian Community were impacted by loss of their river. The people of the Gila River Indian Community relied upon the Gila River for sustenance and as a key component of their culture, and when the river dried up so did a key source of health and cultural knowledge. Increased rates of diabetes and obesity coincided with the decreased water flow, as unhealthy provisions were needed from outside sources to maintain the level of sustenance that was available for generations.

An historic 2004 decision in favor of the tribe has been instrumental in “righting” some of these historical wrongs: 653,000 acre-feet of annual water was awarded to the tribe in light of the loss of the river. The return of this water meant the return of a certain kind of hope that hadn't been around for decades. Perhaps the entity to benefit most from this settlement is Gila River Farms. Established in 1968, Gila River Farms is a thriving business owned and operated by the tribe and was a major beneficiary of the 2004 water decision. In the face of water cuts to agricultural programs elsewhere in the state, the autonomy and water supply to the tribe puts them in a unique position to weather any potential drought in the years to come.

Gila River Farms primarily produces alfalfa, cotton and olive oil as their three main crops, with a handful of smaller offerings such as citrus, wheat and propane services. When asked, Stephanie Sauceda-Manuel, General Manager of the farm, also expressed the desire to become involved with vegetable produce crops in the future. 5285 acres of alfalfa, 2424 acres of cotton, 356 acres of olive trees, 297 acres of citrus and 235 acres of Durum wheat make up the current seasonal divide of cropland, with olive oil, propane and hay all available for direct sales to the public. Some of the challenges they are currently facing are related to the normal difficulties of the new expansion of the olive oil brand, a relatively recent undertaking, and free trade issues stemming from American politics, an ironic situation for a tribe that ostensibly has autonomy from the decisions our government makes. For example, cotton sales to China represented one of the largest partnerships for the farm, but due to the 'trade war' tactics from the years President Trump was in office, this business relationship has been damaged. Sales going to China must now pass through Afghanistan, with the resultant losses in profit preferable to losing these overseas sales altogether.

Despite some challenges like these, the future is definitely bright for Gila River Farms, and I was left with an impression of optimism and high potential for growth, especially with items that carry the Gila River Farms brand and culture. The reemergence of Native agriculture in a climate that once pushed Native people to the side represents a cultural shift that could be further expounded upon with other items that could follow the emerging olive oil business. Gila River cotton products could one day carry some of the prestige that goes along with the perception and culture of Pima cotton, and the potential to provide local, healthy produce in the future to not only residents of the tribe but residents of the Phoenix area at-large could make them a major player in the future local vegetable agriculture scene for years to come. 

I think that Gila River Farms represents hope, not only to the people of the tribe itself, but for everyone everywhere that recognizes the injustice of the historical relationship America has had with the Native American tribes that have suffered throughout American history as a result of settler expansion. Returning the water and potential for growth that was originally lost with the Gila River has gone a long way in showing what kind of future is possible when we acknowledge and learn from the mistakes and sins of the past, and Gila River Farms shows the kind of entrepreneurship and community building that can and hopefully will continue to result from such developments.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.