NAPI officials oppose proposed land lease

Noel Lyn Smith
Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers workers harvest pumpkins on Sept. 28 at a Navajo Agricultural Products Industry site south of Farmington.

FARMINGTON — Navajo Agricultural Products Industry officials are asking a Navajo Nation Council committee to kill a bill that would lease tribal land to two nontribal companies they say have outstanding debts of more than half a million dollars.

The proposal before the Resources and Development committee would authorize the tribe to lease 12,766 acres of farmland at NAPI for 15 years to Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers Inc. and its sister company, Upland Desert Popcorn LLC.

In a telephone interview on Friday, NAPI CEO Wilton Charley said the contract between the tribal enterprise and the two companies expired on Dec. 31 and the companies will have access to facilities until October. But no production activity will occur.

"We are not in support of the legislation. The legislation is bypassing the authority of NAPI," Charley said, adding that NAPI was not consulted about the terms and conditions outlined in the proposed agreement.

Pumpkin Patch co-owner John Hamby said in a telephone interview Friday the company made every attempt to negotiate with NAPI, a tribal enterprise.

NAPI's concerns about the bill include a provision that calls for the withdrawal of all the acreage in Block 8, which is located south of the NAPI headquarters below Moncisco Mesa.

Charley said toward the end of last year, NAPI planted wheat seeds on that acreage in order to supply its new flour mill, and if the proposal moves forward, it would interfere with the supply for the new venture.

In previous years, Pumpkin Patch was allocated 4,700 acres, and the area were it planted was determined by a crop rotation system, he said.

Rodney Boone, right, and fellow crew members harvest pumpkins on Sept. 28 at a Navajo Agricultural Products Industry site south of Farmington.

"What they are withdrawing is three times the amount they normally use. That will impact NAPI and our crop rotation, as well," Charley said.

In an written statement NAPI Board Chairman Lorenzo Begay submitted to The Daily Times on Jan. 31, he said the tribal enterprise "will not succumb to political pressure" by tolerating a lease that violates tribal laws.

Begay also outlined reasons why the Resources and Development Committee, which has final authority on the bill, must not approve the legislation. He said Pumpkin Patch and Upland Desert Popcorn owe money to NAPI and have made no effort to resolve the debt.

Darryl Multine, chief financial officer for NAPI, said the amount due is more than $500,000 for the 2016 crop season. On average, a crop season goes from March to December, Multine said on Friday.

Additional allegations include a claim that both companies have not paid taxes to the Navajo Nation Tax Commission, and that Pumpkin Patch cannot engage in business elsewhere because its corporate status is suspended in North Carolina.

Pumpkin Patch was founded in 1974 in North Carolina and remains headquartered there.

The claims also state the companies were cited on several occasions for poor sanitation conditions for workers, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited Pumpkin Patch for improperly using pesticides.

The Dineh Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit organization consisting of Navajo business owners, also voiced its opposition to the bill, citing concerns about "political overreach" and a violation of the Navajo Business Opportunity Act, in a press release issued on Friday.

Hamby, the Pumpkin Patch co-owner, countered the allegations on Friday.

When asked about the amount due to the tribal enterprise, Hamby said when a siphon that delivers water to NAPI broke in May resulting in lost crops, an agreement was reached between NAPI officials and Pumpkin Patch to postpone all lease payments until an assessment for damages could be conducted after harvest season.

NAPI discovered the broken section on May 13, and water delivery to the 80,000-acre farm was halted for a month while repairs were made.

"I'm not saying we don't owe them something," Hamby said.

He added the companies have asked NAPI to take a reasonable approach in regard to the payments, and he said the companies' bills have been paid on time during the 24-year history between Pumpkin Patch and NAPI.

Hamby said that because of the siphon break, more than half of the crops planted last year by Pumpkin Patch were lost, and about $1 million in revenue was lost by both companies.

As for the claim that taxes have not been paid to the tribe's tax commission, Hamby said the companies are exempt because they do not sell their products on the Navajo Nation.

"There's not an issue of us paying taxes here because the only business we do here is leasing," he said.

Pumpkin Patch has addressed the suspension issued in North Carolina, he said, explaining it was caused by an oversight by the state and a $40 franchise tax that mistakenly had not been paid, Hamby said.

Although the company says the tax has been paid, the suspension is still listed on the state's Department of the Secretary of State website.

George Jeter, director of communications for the Secretary of State's Office, said in an email the company is "revenue suspended" and that status was issued when the state's Department of Revenue notified the agency that the entity should be suspended.

Jeter added reinstatement occurs after the agency is told by the Revenue Department to lift the suspension.

Hamby said the citation for poor sanitation conditions was issued more than two years ago by Indian Health Service, and the concerns were immediately addressed.

As for the citation by the EPA, that was for improper use of prairie dog bait, and the matter was cleared four years ago, he said.

The legislation was posted Jan. 30 on the Navajo Nation Council's website and is eligible for consideration by the Resources and Development Committee starting today.

It is not listed on the proposed agenda for the committee meeting on Tuesday in Tóhajiilee.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.