NAPI ushers in young crop managers, readies expansion

James Fenton
Herman Billie, corn department operator, tests the corn combine in September at Navajo Agricultural Products Industry’s Region II Scale in Farmington.

FARMINGTON - Along a 30 by 20 mile stretch of land just south of downtown Farmington is one of the largest agri-businesses in the region.

Established by the Navajo Nation Council in April 1970, the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, or NAPI, is undergoing changes as officials seek to increase its footprint and economic reach in the region.

Part of NAPI’s recent transformations has been a changing of the guard — the hiring of millennials fresh out of agricultural school to replace a wave of retiring-age workers, some of whom have worked two or three decades at NAPI.

Alexandra Carlisle is the alfalfa crop manager at NAPI and worked as an intern in the entity’s scholar program for four years at the tribal entity until she graduated from New Mexico State University and took on the job full-time.

Carlisle, 24, is currently managing nearly 20,000 acres of alfalfa.

Harvests, or cuttings of alfalfa, occur four times a year, she said.

“You do sacrifice a lot to work here,” Carlisle said. “It’s not an 8 to 5 job. And it’s not Monday through Friday, either. We don’t really have a set schedule. We have a schedule that depends on what the weather throws at us.”

Eric Nez was hired out of college and sometimes starts his days around 4 a.m., but the schedule can change, depending on weather conditions. Normally, Nez works through the night, starting at 9 p.m. and not leaving until noon the following day.

Nez, also 24, finds the work engaging, enough that he doesn’t count out the notion that he may be a farmer his whole career.

“It’s a lot of dedication and a lot of your time,” Nez said.

Carlisle agrees that the hours are difficult. And she finds other challenges.

“Managing people, by far, is one of the hardest tasks possible,” she said. “You can manage a plant, but managing people is a different story.”

In her alfalfa department, Carlisle oversees 25 workers and in her sales department, she oversees 17 others.

Ryan Garcia, 27, has worked at NAPI since 2010 and is the corn crop assistant manager, overseeing 14,417 acres of corn planted this year. The bulk of the corn is used as feed, though some is sold as boutique specialty food items, like blue corn cornmeal or white or yellow Indian corn kernels sold in 50-pound bags with the brand name “Navajo Pride.”

Like Carlisle, he was an intern at NAPI first, and today has a family, trying to manage his burgeoning agricultural career with a young child and wife at home.

Garcia also can work long hours, often arriving at the farm at 6:30 a.m. and not leaving until around 8:30 p.m. during planting and harvesting times, often half of the year.

“We have to give up a lot of things because it’s a different way of life,” Garcia said. A major corn harvest will start today.

“Obviously we’re young. When we were raised, we were under the notion that we would be educated and it’s going to be given to you,” he said. “I thought it was going to be easy. They molded us as young people. After a year or so working here, I wanted to quit.”

Garcia didn’t. He stayed on and today feels like he has matured, both as a manager responsible for overseeing a large-scale crop season after season, but also as a person and member of the Navajo Nation. The agribusiness currently employs 332 people, 99 percent of whom are Navajo, according to Heather Todachine, a NAPI administrator.

“Working here, it’s Navajos working for Navajo people,” Garcia said. “When I think of it that way, I feel very proud. Being a Navajo farmer, being able to use the rights my ancestors died for, to be able to live here, so I feel that way when I come here every day. Although my wife is (less) convinced of that story when I tell it to her.”

Despite the struggle to strike a balance between his work and home life, he feels a sense of pride.

Tsosie Lewis, NAPI CEO since 2002, started as a livestock manager in 1974, and through the years, moved up in the business through various positions and left for three years to attend NMSU and pursue a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and agriculture business, according to the company’s website.

Since the late 1990s, Lewis has been responsible for spearheading the tribal entity’s shift toward the future.

He integrated a new communication system that gave him quick access to crop managers, revamped the business’ marketing strategies, including a policy that required that sales contracts be signed prior to the planting of crops. He also designed NAPI’s first five-year strategic plan, which prioritized replacing outdated infrastructure, equipment and management personnel.

According to NAPI’s website, Lewis’ reforms and innovations have brought the agribusiness up from a $6 million loss in 1999 to a $100,000 profit in 2000. Today, he oversees a $30 million annual budget.

Currently, NAPI only utilizes 77,000 acres of a total 110,630 irrigable acreage, but those numbers will increase.

NAPI will expand into a proposed third region, consisting of three “blocks” of varying sizes.

The business has grown since initial construction of the first “block” was completed in 1976. Every few years since then, the farm has grown.

“Ninety percent of the things I do, (everything) from tilling, from how much water to use, (to) how the elevation impacts your farming, I didn’t learn in college,” Garcia said. “Ten percent of it (that I picked up in) school, was technology, like Excel and PowerPoint.”

The scale of the agribusiness can be measured by the dollars in its budget, the number of hours its workers put in each year or simply the number of pieces of equipment. The farm utilizes 677 center pivot irrigation systems that water the crops, which are controlled and monitored remotely by crop managers holding their iPads or smart phones. NAPI uses from 60 to 70 large-size tractors, and its Region 2 granary has 13 silos that hold millions of bushels of corn.

Next year, the farm will increase its organics crops to 1,000 acres, Garcia said, though those numbers represent less than 1 percent of the entire crops grown at NAPI.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.