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How Does A Farm Thrive in The High Desert? A Journey to Spirit Farm

With the sun below the horizon of the high desert plateau of northwestern New Mexico, Eden Trenor and I stand in silent awe. The Milky Way emerges overhead, a river of stars unobscured by light pollution. It's midnight at Spirit Farm, and we've stepped out of our bunkhouse to witness the nightly celestial spectacle in this remote corner of the Navajo Nation.


A farm at dusk.
Spirit Farm in New Mexico

This ethereal moment encapsulates the ethos of Spirit Farm. In this place, Indigenous wisdom and innovative practices intertwine, where the rhythms of nature dictate daily life and where a deep renewal in Indigenous regenerative agriculture is taking root.


(A short film encapsulating our journey.)


Spirit Farm, founded in 2014 by James and Joyce Skeet, sits on ancestral Navajo land in Vanderwagen, New Mexico. The Skeets' mission is to recover and reclaim traditional farming and spiritual practices while integrating modern techniques to establish resilience in their way of life and share this experience with others in the hopes of extending awareness and knowledge that people can bring to their lives. It's an ambitious goal, but one that feels urgently necessary as we face the interconnected challenges of climate change, food insecurity, and cultural erosion.

A man in a hat in a shed.
James Skeet, founder of Spirit Farm

Eden and I (Anna Zefferys), are on a five-day immersion at Spirit Farm in mid-June getting a glimpse into this holistic approach to farming. As team members of Thriving Communities--Eden is a holistic consultant from Eleven Branches, and I in my role as the consulting communications director for Thriving Communities from Asprey Digital--visited Spirit Farm to go beyond the film that Thriving Communities made in 2023 (watch), to explore how we might further support them with their work.


From the moment we arrive, it's clear this is no ordinary farm. There's no running water, no ambient light. Solar panels provide electricity where needed. Composting toilets and outhouses serve as restroom facilities. Yet, far from feeling deprived, we find ourselves liberated from modern conveniences, more attuned to the land and its cycles.


Gardens in a hoop house.
Growing food in hoop houses at Spirit Farm.

Natana Begay, a Navajo tribal member who works at Spirit Farm, leads us on our initial tour of the farm. We start in the hoop houses, where polyculture plantings create a vibrant, diverse ecosystem. Rather than straight rows of single crops, we see brassicas intermixed with squashes, tomatoes and flowers, a technique that increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface.


The farm's philosophy of regeneration extends beyond agriculture. In 2014, the Navajo Nation passed the Healthy Diné Nation Act, imposing a 2% tax on junk food--the country's first law of its kind. The act raised over $7 million in its first four years, funding community wellness programs (Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2014). It's part of a broader movement to address the health disparities that plague Indigenous communities, where rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease far exceed national averages (Indian Health Service, 2019). But there is a long ways to go.


Spirit Farm supports the local community as a living experience of how Indigenous Wisdom can be combined with modern techniques to create resilient, sustainable food systems. We see this synthesis in action as James shows us their composting operation, which utilizes the Johnson-Su method to create nutrient-rich, fungal-dominant compost.

Sheep in a corral.
Navajo-Churro Sheep at Spirit Farm

As we move through the farm, we encounter the livestock--Navajo-Churro sheep, chickens, and recently added pigs. These animals play a crucial role in the farm's closed-loop system, providing manure for compost and helping to regenerate the land. The Navajo-Churro sheep are central to the Indigenous regenerative practices at Spirit Farm, a breed deeply intertwined with Navajo culture and history. These hardy animals are uniquely adapted to the arid Southwest, with lean bodies and thick, double-coated fleece in various natural colors.


The Navajo Churro are resistant to most diseases and thrive in the dry, low-forage climate of the Navajo Nation. Historically, these sheep were the cornerstone of Navajo self-sufficiency, providing food, income, and wool for the iconic Navajo blankets. They also hold spiritual significance, featured prominently in Navajo creation myths and traditional practices. The near-extinction of the Navajo Churro in the 20th century due to government policies was a profound blow to Navajo culture and economy. Today, efforts to restore Navajo-Churro flocks, like those at Spirit Farm, represent more than just livestock management—they're a reclamation of cultural identity, traditional lifeways, and a sustainable, land-based economy.


Our short stay at Spirit Farm is filled with learning opportunities. Local Zuni Pueblo tribal members Hayes and Lea Lewis offered presentations, sharing their experiences with Indigenous health and education approaches.


Hayes Lewis, Director of A:shiwi College

As the Director of A:shiwi College and Career Readiness Center, Hayes Lewis has been instrumental in developing culturally-grounded educational programs. He shared his vision for a micro school that would serve 50 students from grades 8 to 12, focusing on multidisciplinary education rooted in tribal and ancestral knowledge while also preparing students for employment and academic success.


A traditional Navajo dwelling.
The Hogan at Spirit Farm

Lewis emphasized the importance of decolonizing education, explaining how the accreditation process can sometimes lead to a narrowing of Indigenous wisdom if not carefully managed. "As you go through the process, it starts getting narrower and narrower. And if you totally follow it and you don't decolonize your organization or yourselves, you come out the other side looking just like everybody else," he explained.

Lea Lewis, who holds a Master's degree in Public Health, shared insights on integrating traditional Zuni philosophy into modern education and health practices. She introduced us to the Zuni directional guidance model, which incorporates the six directions and their associations with different colored corn, squash varieties, and beans. This model, she explained, provides a framework for understanding knowledge, strength, introspection, and problem-solving from a Zuni perspective.


A man in front of a projection on a wall.
Peter McCabe discusses microbial activity and it's influence on rain.

Peter "Owl" McCabe, Executive Director of Work in Beauty, a local nonprofit promoting regenerative farming, discussed his work at the Eco-Regenerative Learning Center. McCabe's journey mirrors that of Spirit Farm in many ways. The soil was depleted when he purchased his 40-acre property 16 years ago, with only 0.5 percent organic matter. Today, after years of regenerative practices, that number has climbed to 2.1 percent and continues to rise. It's a testament to the power of these methods, even in challenging high-altitude, low-precipitation environments.


Between formal presentations, we engaged in deep discussions, sharing meals of farm-fresh produce in the traditional Hogan. The conversations were as nourishing as the food, touching on everything from soil microbiology to Indigenous rights to the future of agriculture in a changing climate.


Etchings of sheep in stone.
Ancient petroglyphs at El Morro in New Mexico.

Our immersion extended beyond the farm itself. We visited the flea market in Gallup, a vibrant showcase of local culture and commerce. A trip to El Morro National Monument offered a glimpse into the area's rich history, with centuries-old petroglyphs etched into sandstone cliffs. Back at the farm, Joyce took us mountain biking across the land, and James joined us on a memorable nighttime excursion.


Throughout our stay, we're struck by the deep connection to place that permeates every aspect of life at Spirit Farm. This land has been home to Indigenous peoples for millennia--broken pottery from Ancestral Puebloan cultures lies scattered in the desert soil as we walk along the trails.


Two people walking in a desert forest.
Eden and James on a night walk through the land where Spirit Farm resides.
Water cachement at Spirit Farm is essential to life on the farm.

As our time at Spirit Farm draws to a close, we reflect on the transformative power of this experience. We've learned about a model of agriculture that goes beyond sustainability, actively regenerating ecosystems and communities. We've seen how Indigenous Wisdom, long marginalized by Western institutions, offers vital solutions to our most pressing environmental challenges.


Woman in a hat holding a small dog.
Joyce, founder of Spirit Farm, with Chico.

The work being done at Spirit Farm is part of a broader effort by Indigenous Communities to reconnect with culture and place to restore health in the face of modern challenges, including climate change. In November 2021, the White House released a memo declaring that Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge "can and should inform" U.S. federal policy (The White House, 2021). It's a step in the right direction, but there's much progress to be made in fully integrating Indigenous Wisdom into our agricultural and environmental practices.


 

As Eden and I prepare to leave, we carry with us not just new knowledge, but a profound sense of hope. In this quiet corner of New Mexico, a restoration is underway-- one that promises to heal not just the land, but the relationship to it and to each other. It's a renewal rooted in ancient wisdom, nurtured by innovation, and driven by an unwavering commitment to regeneration in all its forms.


Flower in the desert.
Evening primrose flower.

The stars overhead seem to affirm this promise, a reminder of the vast possibilities that await when we align ourselves with the rhythms of the natural world. As we depart Spirit Farm, we do so with a fresh commitment to carrying this ethos of regeneration into our own lives and communities, recognizing the life in all things--from the stars above to the invisible microbiome nurturing life and health in the soil beneath our feet.


To support Spirit Farm, consider a donation to their Water Truck Campaign.


Background References:



Health Disparities Fact Sheet (2019)


White House Memorandum on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (2021)


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