Navajo Beef Brings Traditional Practices and Modern Business to Ranching | Civil Eats

Navajo Beef Brings Traditional Practices and Modern Business to Ranching

On 300,000 acres of Northeastern Arizona, the Navajo Nation is producing nutritious beef for the reservation—and beyond.

Elwood and Nora Pahi. (Photo © Thosh Collins)

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.

Jonathan Pahi feeding the cattle. (Photo © Thosh Collins)

Jonathan Pahi feeding the cattle.

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.

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A map of the Nahat'a' Dziil Chapter. (Photo © Thosh Collins)

A map of the Nahat’a’ Dziil Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

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.

A 14-R watering hole. (Photo © Thosh Collins)

A 14-R watering hole.

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.

Displaying the new marketing brochure for Native American Beef. (Photo © Thosh Collins)

Displaying the new marketing brochure for Native American Beef.

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.

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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.

The Pahi family on the range. (Photo © Thosh Collins)

The Pahi family on the range.

“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.

Chelsey Luger is a freelance journalist and wellness advocate based in Phoenix, Arizona, originally from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, High Country News, YES! Magazine, Indian Country Today Media Network, Al Jazeera America, Fusion, NowThis, and more. She is a trainer for the Native Wellness Institute and the cofounder of Well For Culture, an Indigenous wellness initiative. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Elwood Pahi
    I like the article and big thanks for sharing our 14r family ranching business with the public. Can these pictures in articles be send to me by email. Again we appreciate your business.
  2. sanjib kumar ray
    To increase the livestock , the life-cycle of them has to improved. And to improve their life-cycle you have concentrate on their food, drinking water and their living place. The more they will be pleased to live , the more the increase in their number , will be possible.
  3. I went to school with Elwood Pahi at Northfield Mt. Hermon in Massachusetts. So proud of what he is doing. Our tribe needs to take a look at this.
    I am Ernestine Chasing Hawk a journalist for Native Sun News Today in Rapid City.
  4. We are in the process of opening a restaurant in Bisbee AZ. I would love to provide Navaho beef to our customers! Is it possible to obtain it in SE Arizona???
  5. Ella dunigan
    I applause these family for doing what they can to step up to work toward a better livelihood of living in lands that most of us would not want to live,l hope they continue to produce more healthy beef n generate more money .
  6. Filbert Nelson
    We're also Dine or Navajo from Teesto area my family and I raise Suffolk/Hampshire sheep and Boer goats eventually like to get into brangus and Angus cattle wondering how we would go about it and their is a program

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