The practice of growing food crops in unison with natural weather patterns has been evolving for several thousands of years.
Traditional flood plain farming is one of several types of dryland farming
that date back to the prehistoric native period
where drought-tolerant crops(corn and beans)were cultivated in the absence of mechanical irrigation systems.
In modern-day Arizona, adapting to the climate involves growing plants along geomorphic flood plains
, arroyos and desert washes. Plants that have been strategically placed in these environments thrive on ground moisture from sporadic monsoon pulses
and primarily rely on redirected rainfall via surface runoff
This type of desert farming is detailed further in this interview with Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a contemporary Hopi farmer and a former labmate of mine from graduate school with experience designing and implementing desert dryland cropping systems.
MNN: Hopi farming practices have been evolving for a long time, according to anthropologists, so why is this type of farming specialized to certain crops and locations in Arizona?
Johnson: Well, at least for Hopi, this is where we decided to settle after our migrations. The specialization is more about the area we live in and the climate, geography and environment that we are a part of. The seeds came with us but have adapted over time in the place which is now known as the Hopi reservation.
What is a typical day for you like when you are dryland farming?
Depends on what time of year. For example, if I am planting then days are as long as the weather permits for me to be outside. After the plants emerge, then the real work begins — such as digging out cutworms, hoeing weeds, thinning crops, applying shade protection. Then when they get bigger you have to do frequent canopy checks and look for things when the plants don't look healthy. You have to watch out for things like gophers and crows when the melons and ears of corn start to appear. All kinds of things you do not learn in book but rather are taught.
How does Hopi desert farming try and conserve water and soil resources over time?
Water conservation is achieved by the areas we choose to plant in along with soil. We plant in various locations, washes, sandy slopes and alluvial flood plains. All of these locations bring new soil that replenishes nutrients by the action of monsoon rains. As for sandy slopes, they act as canteens that hold a lot of water for plants that need a lot of moisture, like melons and squash.
Explain the different types of plant-water processes that occur on your farm?
Most of our water comes from water runoff during events like monsoon rains. However, snowfall in the winter must be adequate enough to allow the plants (corn) to maintain growth from emergence until about July, and survive the heat. That is why we plant at depths of 12-18 inches.
How do you protect your plants from intense sunlight, unexpected rainstorms and limited soil moisture?
We use various types of shade protection (brush, cans, etc.) for beans and melons. With corn we plant in clumps with 6-7 plants per hole which provide their own form of shade protection and shelter each other so as not to dry out.
In general, how do you prevent crop loss from soil pathogens, insects and nutrient poor soils?
This is done mainly through acts of nature as mentioned where we decide to plant and by doing frequent canopy checks. We don't use pesticides or herbicides when caring for Hopi plants. Also planting, plant thinning and harvesting are all done by hand and help with preventing crop loss.
As an experienced dryland farmer, do you think your crops are noticeably affected by climate change? If so, in what ways?
I am not a firm believer in climate change as we believe Earth is going through yet another cycle. As for drought, this is noticeable by the way the plants grow more slowly and the corn is often stunted with very few kernels on the cob.
What type of crop seeds are best suited for this type of farming system and where do they come from?
The best seeds are our own heirloom varieties that have not been genetically altered. These seeds have been passed down from generation to generation by those families that hold them.
What do you enjoy most about dryland farming?
I enjoy the end product but more importantly I enjoy watching my plants grow up. For they are truly like children from birth when they emerge to death when you harvest a complete life cycle.
Well that is good news. My last question is about the Hopi culture, and how dryland farming relates to Hopi culture.
We farm because that is what we have done for thousands of generations. We farm because it is a cultural and spiritual aspect of who we are. We also farm because we are subsistence in nature. This is a totally different approach than the economic driven agriculture produce you see at the supermarkets. We are a living seed bank. Nowhere else in the world is this done. The genetic variation of our seeds is incredible. In my mind we are a national treasure - a living seed repository.
Photos: Michael Kotutwa Johnson