Conservation is giving Vietnam War veteran Gilbert Harrison a peace offering of healing, helping to balance the stresses of war. For Harrison, conserving the natural resources on his farm is an important outdoor activity. And who better to care for the land than the veterans who fought to protect it?
Harrison has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) since 2012, when he received funding and technical assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help him install an improved irrigation system to help develop alfalfa production on his land.
Harrison, 74 years old, maintains his land with his wife, Gloria, but he is physically incapable of providing the water his crops need. The EQIP funding enabled him to buy materials, and find assistance with installing a gated pipe irrigation system.
In Harrison’s community, the Navajo Reservation called Gagii’ahi that sits along the San Juan River, manual irrigation was ineffective. They had used ditches and flows, which lost much water due to evaporation during arid summers. Also, the weeds that surrounded the river soaked up a substantial amount of water. Now, with his gated pipes, Harrison is conserving water. The holes covered by slide gates on the pipes allow control how much water is given to the crops, with little wasted.
Harrison has farmed for 25 years and grows native corn, alfalfa, cantaloupe, and watermelon. He connects farms to tables by selling about 50 percent of his crops to other Navajo ranchers. He also sells traditional foods like steamed corn and kneel-down bread and corn pollen, which is converted from corn and used during traditional Navajo ceremonies. The corn is grown from specialized seeds passed down from generation to generation.
And while he still uses the three sister’s tradition on two- to three-acre plots, he says such native farming methods have changed. Instead of planting corn, beans, and squash in the same mound, they are leaning more towards alfalfa because it’s used to feed livestock.
Retired after 28 years of federal service, Harrison finds that full-time farming provides mental and physical therapy because, “It keeps you moving, it keeps the blood flowing and your mind active,” he says. “I hear a lot of retirees having nothing to do, but I have things to do because I have the farm and I’m interested in farming.” As a war vet, Harrison has skills that compliment basic farming, like working long hours, record-keeping, staying devoted to achieving goals, keen attention to detail, and having a plan B in case the initial plan falls through.
With a small farm, Harrison doesn’t bring in a large income to make a living but “we have enough to do and enjoy what we do,” said Harrison. “Farming is something that you have to enjoy doing. It isn’t easy and there is a lot of physical activity involved but you have to enjoy working the land, you have to enjoy seeing the crops grow. That’s what it’s all about–enjoying it and taking care of the land.”
Harrison is also working with the USDA Council for Native American Farming and Ranching, helping to build awareness and eliminate barriers Native Americans face with participating in USDA programs, and expand new agriculture opportunities for tribes. He encourages other war veterans to look to the land for therapy and to help with the transition back home. Harrison hopes to encourage younger generations to go back to their roots and engage in the farming traditions.
For more information on conservation opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives and tribal governments, please visit NRCS’ Tribal Assistance page.
Watch this YouTube video to see how NRCS is working with other members of the Navajo Nation to conserve tribal lands through our StrikeForce Initiative.