On the 14-R Ranch, there are considerably more cattle than people. Just north of Sanders, Arizona—population 3,716—about 2,000 head roam more than 300,000 acres.
Unlike the more verdant cattle ranches of the Great Plains, the land here on the Navajo Nation is peppered with patchy vegetation—a desert surrounded by junipers and red sand. But what the area lacks in grass density it makes up for in extended acreage, offering plenty of food for cattle, which 14-R ranchers say results in healthier, better-tasting meat and a notably ecological operation.
Through a partnership with the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise and Labatt Food Service, the 10th-largest food distributor in the United States, Navajo Beef is now a coveted product that has won awards for its distinct flavor. It is also a part of the larger pool of which is now part of a broader Native American beef label that is sold in the tribe’s casino restaurants and in some Navajo Nation grocery stores.
The Navajo Beef program is a step toward self-sufficiency and tribal food sovereignty; the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is able to sell an authentic product to their Native American and non-Native customers alike. Meanwhile, the Navajo ranchers are earning about $1,200 per head, and their prospects for growth are on the rise.
Elwood Pahi, a Navajo rancher and the founder and President of 14-R, recently returned from a livestock show where a group of Korean restaurateurs showed interest in the meat the ranch is producing. “You never know,” said Pahi. “Navajo Beef might be the next big thing in high-end markets overseas.”
The ranchers are descendants of hundreds of Navajo families living on the Hopi reservation who were forcibly removed by the federal government in an effort to settle an ownership land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo in the 1990s. For them, the rise of Navajo Beef is a sign of progress in turning past injustices to their advantage.
14-R Ranch was formed as a nonprofit operation in 2012 with a goal of blending modern practices and cultural teachings. The operation is spread among 14 range units at 18,000 acres each (thus the name 14-R). In the past six years, it has become, in many ways, a model for transforming barren surroundings into a thriving cattle operation. And, as the ranchers see it, Navajo Beef is better-tasting, higher-quality, more ethically raised, and more ecologically sound than your average American beef.
“The general beef industry has been trying to figure out the co-op model for a very long time,” says A-dae Romero-Briones, Native Agriculture and Food Systems program director at First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit that provided funds to 14-R to expand its operation. “So far, it’s gotten as far as having ranchers share markets; they combine products after they raise the beef, or perhaps the ranchers share equipment or processing costs. 14-R shares the land base, the equipment, the processing and the markets. [It] has one of the most cooperative models that I have ever seen.”
Beyond producing meat, the ranch is also a source of pride and livelihood that has cultivated a renewed sense of hope in a community that once felt business and life was irrecoverable.
Thin and agile, Joann Roan is a 14-R rancher who appears to be in remarkable health for an elderly woman. She sits at the head of the conference table at the Nahat’a’ Dziil chapter office, a small, aluminum building with no bells or whistles, made cozy by the fire from a wood stove.
“It’s really awful what we’ve gone through, but now we’ve finally got our heads up out of the water,” she said. “We’re not just ‘relocatees’ anymore. We’re ranchers. We’re survivors. We’re producers. And now, we’re trying to hang on to our livelihood.”
Moving From Traditional Homelands
The “relocatees” is the name formerly used for the people who live on an area that used to be called the New Lands, or the 365,000-acre parcel of land on which 14-R Ranch sits. The Navajo residents recently changed the name to Nahat’a’ Dziil—which means “planning with strength” in the Diné or Navajo language—as a way to reflect their collective intentions as a community. The Nahat’a’ Dzill Commission Government is now a subsection of the Navajo Nation government, operating much like a city council to oversee an area on which about 500 families live—including the 70-some families who operate 14-R Ranch.
The families, many of whom have been ranching for generations, make their living through 14-R’s unique nonprofit structure. It allows families to combine resources, run their cattle on each others’ land, and run the business as a single entity, making the operation more manageable and profitable for all involved.
Other Native American cattle producers, with the exception of the Quawpaw Tribe in Oklahoma (the only tribe in the country with their own meat-processing facility), follow the typical American beef supply chain, which means that after the ranchers sell their cattle to a feedlot, they have no way of tracking where the final beef product ends up. But because the 14-R ranchers work hand in hand with Labatt Food Service, which has its own meat processing facility, they can ensure that their beef, is ultimately returned back to the Navajo reservation.
The 14-R ranchers are proud of their product. The cows only eat local grasses, including winterfat, western wheatgrass, and big sagebrush. The company ensures that that all ranchers follow their guidelines: no antibiotics, gentle treatment, limited and minimal vaccinations, and strict rules on breeding and reproduction, with respect to traditional Navajo practices. Labatt also works with 14-R to make sure the Navajo ranchers are paid fairly.
In 2012, its first year of operation, the Navajo Beef program produced 545 head of cattle and generated more than $500,000 of revenue that went back into the local Navajo community, according to Labatt. Last year, Labatt projected $2.3 million in sales with 1,998 total head of cattle for the operation.
Supply Chain and the Future
Even with 2000 head of cattle, 14-R is nowhere near providing meat for the entire Navajo Nation, which is one of the most populous tribes in the U.S. with 350,000 residents.
In addition to Navajo beef, the Native American beef label includes the Zuni Pueblo and the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache Nations, and can now be found as far away as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The ranchers hope to eventually expand their sales beyond casinos and grocery stores into schools and hospitals on the reservation.
14-R rancher Wayne Lynch hopes for continued growth but worries that environmental factors that have already caused some trouble are only worsening. “This was the driest winter we had in a long time,” he said, explaining that the drought caused less phosphorous vegetation, which the cows need for a healthy digestive system.
Recent headlines confirm the legitimacy of his concerns. The Colorado River basin is currently in extreme drought conditions, and Arizona politicians are scrambling to figure out long-term solutions.
In addition to the drought and harsh climate, the Navajo Nation is struggling with a feral horse problem. Hundreds of wild horses roam freely across the desert and often eat up the livestock’s food supply. And as with the drought, there is no simple solution.
The future of 14-R and Navajo Beef is certainly not guaranteed, but the ranchers are holding out hope despite climate change and fear that the temptation of the outside world might mean that future generations may not choose to carry on with these family operations.
“We’re concentrating on the youth,” said rancher Libby Dugi. “We want them to carry on the culture of raising livestock, and eventually to make us sustainable and self-sufficient as Navajo people again, the way we used to be.”
Across Nahat’a’ Dziil, ranchers and residents hold out hope that, if they’re able to tap into new markets and sell Navajo Beef on a larger scale, they’ll be able to do just that.
“We’re all related and we all help one another,” said Dugi, who is over 60 like the majority of the ranchers. “What we have now is very good,” she says. “We have to keep it going.”
This article is part of a series of articles to be published by Civil Eats in partnership with GATHER, a documentary chronicling the movement for Native American Food Sovereignty.
Top photo: Elwood and Nora Pahi. All photos © Thosh Collins.