UArizona Faculty Leads Efforts to Preserve Indigenous Agriculture with Innovative Water Conservation Methods

April 18, 2024
Michael Johnson kneels by corn in a field.

Michael Kotutwa Johnson works with Indigenous communities in the Southwest to revitalize Indigenous farming practices.

Hopi people have long used farming techniques designed to help them conserve water and keep vital moisture in their soil. For thousands of years, the Hopi have developed their crops to thrive in an environment that receives less than 10 inches of annual rain and have cultivated a physical and spiritual relationship with their food.

Extended periods of drought and insufficient funding for agricultural infrastructure threaten the diversity of Hopi crops and the availability of nutritious traditional foods. Lack of access to these vital foods has contributed to detrimental increases in health disparities for American Indians, including diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. To help address these threats, Michael Kotutwa Johnson, supported by a grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), aims to protect crop biodiversity and ensure access to nutritious food for Indigenous people.

“We’re going to examine water conservation practices that increase food production for not only Hopi crops but other Indigenous crops in the southwest,” said Kotutwa Johnson who is a traditional Hopi farmer and an assistant specialist for Indigenous Resilience with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension and the Indigenous Resilience Center within the Arizona Institute for Resilience.

In the past, studies on agricultural water conservation approaches have been mainly for globally produced crops such as rice, alfalfa, sugar cane, wheat, cotton, and soy. Kotutwa Johnson intends to primarily focus his project on Indigenous domesticated crops, testing various irrigation methods on varieties of beans, maize, and squash—staples at the heart of the Indigenous diet. The best practices developed from the study’s results will then be disseminated among tribal communities in Arizona and adjusted to fit the climatic features of their respective areas.

This project will address critical issues to enhance cropping systems that contribute to the holistic well-being of Indigenous people in the Southwest. As the project unfolds, Kotutwa Johnson's dedication to preserving water conservation practices tailored to Indigenous crops will not only benefit the Hopi Nation but also serve as a model for Indigenous communities facing similar challenges across the nation.

Originally published on April 8 by the College of Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences >>