SHIPROCK — Israel is trying to help the Navajo Nation grow — not bigger, but better.
As part of the two-day "Navajo and Israel Agricultural Gathering for the First Nations" conference, four Israeli farmers on Monday answered questions about water, soil, and planting. The farmers are from AMA Agricultural Industries, which is based in Ofakim, Israel.
The conference, which continues today, aims to improve the future of agriculture on the Navajo Nation. But whether the message reached the right people was up for debate.
"I don't see any farmers here," said JC Begay, a farmer from Shiprock. "It's mostly non-Indian, educated people."
Begay, who is involved with his local farm board, said he was disappointed to see few Navajo farmers in the crowd. He said he felt that they were the ones who should be discussing agriculture with the Israeli farmers.
Many who attended Monday's event are members of Victory Life Church in Shiprock, which organized much of the conference.
Victory Life Church and other faith-based, non-political groups paid for the Israeli farmers' trip, just as the groups paid for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly's trip to Israel last December.
Shelly, who made a trip to Shiprock on Monday to attend the conference, first expressed interest in Israel when he attended a conference in Farmington, during which he learned about Israel and the history of its people. He saw similarities between Israel's past and the tribe's, including the country's own struggle to successfully harvest produce — a problem today for the tribe.
In a declaration, Shelly stated that the tribe was a supporter of Israel, a move that many Navajo people criticized. Still, Shelly stands by his decision.
"They are giving us what they know. They're willing to help us," Shelly said Tuesday of Israel.
Suggested solutions were rooted in both traditional and modern methods. The Israeli farmers promoted drip irrigation, planting trees and soil nutrition as ways to improve the success rate of crops.
"Share your problems about why the plant is not growing. Cooperative growing, it starts from sharing," said Miriam Amzalag, one of the farmers who spoke Monday. Miriam Amzalag and her husband, Avi, run a farm in the Negev desert in southern Israel, where the climate is similar to the Navajo Nation's, though more arid.
The farmers spoke about growing peppers, olives, melons and dates — all with less water and more heat than usually found on the Navajo Nation. They also talked about the lack of government support, funding and resources.
"You do not have dry land. We have dry land," said Yinon Rietti, noting that his area receives only one inch of rain annually.
All of the speakers emphasized that while the climates of the Navajo Nation are similar, no one-size-fits-all approach would solve all of the problems presented. But sharing ideas would, over time, make it clear which approaches work best, the farmers said.
"I am a farmer who has failed before," Rietti said, emphasizing the importance of trial and error.
Some audience members paid less attention to farming discussions and more to the conversations in between. Prayers and songs were scheduled between discussions.
"One of the most important things is for the Navajo people to connect with Israel. There's a whole bigger thing other than agriculture," said Peggy Mae, of Bloomfield.
The Israeli farmers are continuing the conference from 8 a.m. to noon today at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock. Also today, they plan to tour the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry outside of Farmington to better understand the Navajo people's land.
"We want to see things happening," said Miriam Amzalag.
Jenny Kane can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4636. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane.