Navajo police continue enforcement of court order to halt hemp farming
SHIPROCK — Rows and rows of plastic pots guarded by scarecrows baked under the afternoon sun in an open field at a seemingly deserted hemp farm along Mesa Farm Road in Shiprock.
The farm was one of many on Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco’s rounds Sept. 23. No one was seen at that farm, but it appeared that work had started on expanding the size of the production site before a court order shut things down.
A breeze kicked up dust as Francisco drove his police car down the dirt road and talked about the department's work to impose the temporary restraining order granted by the Shiprock Judicial District court last week. The order halted the production of hemp at more than 30 farms in the area.
"A lot of places, they started going up rather quickly," Francisco said of the network of greenhouses that sprang up and, with them, brought controversy and legal actions that have galvanized a community into pro- and anti-hemp-growing camps.
Judge Genevieve Woody issued the order on Sept. 18, after listening to testimony in a court hearing a day earlier about the production of hemp.
The farms have been set up by Dineh Benally, president of the San Juan River Farm Board, on farm plots in Shiprock and the surrounding area. Benally is running for re-election in the tribe's Nov. 3 general election, according to the Navajo Election Administration.
The Navajo Nation is suing Benally, a Shiprock resident, and his two companies for allegedly illegally issuing land use permits on tribal land for foreign entities to cultivate and grow hemp, which is an illegal crop under tribal law.
The tribe filed its lawsuit in June, which seeks to permanently stop the cultivation. The Shiprock court will hold a hearing by telecommunication on Sept. 28 and Sept. 29, according to the Navajo Nation Judicial Branch.
Daily compliance checks
Francisco said enforcement of the order started the evening of Sept. 18 and continued throughout the weekend.
The order only stops growing activities and it does not allow officers the authority to confiscate plants or enter farms at will, he explained.
While the farms have been quiet, police officers continue to check for compliance each day at 36 farm operation locations in Shiprock, Gadii'ahi and Fruitland.
There are 21 officers from the department's seven police districts who are conducting checks and investigating calls made to the hemp operation hotline about noncompliance or suspicious activities related to farming operations.
"We pulled these guys in from the other districts to concentrate just on the injunction enforcement," Francisco said.
While driving closer to a farm farther west on Mesa Farm Road — which Francisco described as one of the largest operations — three men watched from their pickup truck.
The nearby field had 18 rows of greenhouses and tall, green plants were seen inside the structures while outside were generators, bales of growing mix for indoor plants, materials to build more greenhouses and two portable buildings.
The men had their faces covered and one began to put on a protective vest as an officer walked toward the truck.
Help sought for farm workers
Francisco said the department is allowing security teams hired by Benally to continue monitoring the farms but the workers, who he described as mainly non-Native and mostly from California, have left.
"A lot of them, I think, were unaware that this wasn't a legitimate job," he said.
While dozens of laborers have left the area, there is continued concern by the police department over those who remain displaced.
The department has reached out to the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission to develop a solution to help those individuals, according to a Sept. 22 post on the department's Facebook page.
Tiffany Charley, spokeswoman for the human rights commission's office in St. Michaels, Arizona, said a meeting has been scheduled for next week.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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