A Growing Lifeline for Navajo Ranchers: High-End Beef

Livestock has long been a way of life for Navajo families. Now it’s also a way for them to make money.

Kimberly Yazzie is building a premium beef brand with other Navajo ranchers in northeastern Arizona. (Irina Zhorov)

The land on the Padres Mesa Demonstration Ranch, in northeastern Arizona, stretches so vast and wild that it can be perspective-skewing, easy to get lost in. But Bill Inman effortlessly navigates his truck through a sea of blue grama grass, broomweed, and sage. When he spots a herd of cows, he hits the brakes.

“She’s a box of chocolates,” Kimberly Yazzie says as she points at a stately heifer.

About a dozen cows with week-old calves are bedded down in late-winter forage, all muted greens and gold.

“She’s pretty,” Inman agrees.

Inman and Yazzie are trying to grow a beef brand—Navajo Beef—with a community of Navajo families, Yazzie’s included, who were relocated to this stretch of desert as part of the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act. During the move most brought livestock, much of it without papers, vaccines, or marketable genetics. Inman and Yazzie are helping the families transform the descendants of those animals into premium beef. It’s a way to grow people’s incomes in an area with few economic opportunities. The federal agency managing the relocation has bolstered their efforts, but after 40 years it’s expected to shutter, threatening to dismantle progress.

Kimberly Yazzie was born on a rural expanse of the Navajo Nation, which stretches for 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The wide-open land—Yazzie’s closest neighbor lived about 30 miles away—lent itself easily to livestock. Yazzie’s grandparents kept 80 sheep and more than 50 cows.

“In the Navajo Diné traditional way of living, the livestock is one of the main values,” Yazzie says. “It’s taught if you have these things, you’re going to continue to live a good life, you’re going to do great things, and you’re going to succeed.”

But Yazzie’s family lived on land disputed by the Navajo and Hopi tribes, a conflict instigated by federal policies from the 1800s. With the 1974 Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, the federal government sought to resolve the disagreement in a way it often did when dealing with indigenous peoples: by relocating them. Over the decades, about 3,700 Navajo families left Hopi land and vice versa.

Yazzie’s grandparents moved in the late 1980s. Yazzie’s immediate family followed in the late 1990s. Their new home was in a recently created satellite of trust land called the New Lands: about 350,000 acres on the reservation’s southern border in northeastern Arizona. They occupied a house on a one-acre plot, in a cluster of other homes built by the Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation (ONHIR), a federal agency. “Giving up all of their open land space—it traumatized everybody,” Yazzie says. “They still shed tears for where they used to live.”

ONHIR also provided each family with a permit to graze their animals on fenced range units. One permit covered about 20 cows. Much of the reservation, where cattle tended to roam freely and grazing quotas weren’t strictly enforced, had been overgrazed. The idea on the New Lands was to manage the land more sustainably.

But many relocatees weren’t sold. Some, including Yazzie’s grandparents, remembered stock reductions during the Great Depression, when government agents shot sheep in front of their owners, purportedly to reduce overgrazing. Following the culling, the feds implemented the reservation’s first permitting system. That program, designed without local input, cemented distrust for such protocols.

The forced relocation, with its new rules, seemed taken from the same book. Yazzie says officials didn’t properly explain the reasons for the permits, particularly to elders. So when Yazzie’s grandparents were forced to abandon a majority of their animals, it made the move even more painful. “Because you’ve already had to relocate these people and they were resistant in leaving, and now you want to tell them how to manage their cattle and how to manage the land,” Yazzie says.

The Padres Mesa Demonstration Ranch teaches Navajo families how to professionalize their cattle operations. (Irina Zhorov)

Relocated animals arriving on the New Lands were a smorgasbord of different sizes and colors—black, white, red, and tan—which indicated muddled genetics and unpredictable meat quality. People rarely vaccinated cattle or tracked nutrition.

“This area was known for low volume, low quality, poor image, and high-risk livestock,” Inman says.

Many Navajo producers didn’t raise animals as a commodity—rather, livestock served a subsistence role. At the sale barn, white buyers often took advantage of Navajo producers. A cow would fetch $500, hundreds of dollars below market rates.

The New Lands sits in Apache County, one of the poorest in the U.S., with few job opportunities. Younger relocatees, who wanted to hold on to traditions but also to make money off the livestock, grew frustrated. The thinking, Yazzie says, was: “When will we ever be compatible with the bilagáana, the white man? Like, how do we create opportunity for our Native people?”

In 2009, ONHIR created the Padres Mesa Demonstration Ranch and hired Bill Inman to run it. The Ranch, pitched as an economic-development initiative, would teach relocatees to professionalize their operations and care for the land. Inman organized branding days, taught people to administer vaccines, and hired a handful of Navajo cowboys. He produced thick reports on forage health. The ranch also leased out good breeding bulls to refine herd genetics.

Livestock quality improved. But there was a problem: Producers were still selling to middlemen at rock-bottom prices.

Yazzie was working as an agriculture teacher at the time, often using the Ranch’s facilities for lessons. One day, while branding at the Ranch with her students, she ran into a man she didn’t know. He pointed to the animals grazing nearby; he said he wanted to buy and market the cattle as Navajo Beef, to consumers increasingly interested in where their food came from and how it was raised. “I was mean to him,” Yazzie recalls, laughing.

The herd the man had been eyeing belonged to the Ranch—in other words, to the federal government—not to Navajo producers. “So you can’t even call it Navajo Beef,” she told him. She argued that the label would appropriate the tribe’s identity without benefiting its members. “Kids there were like, ‘Ms. Yazzie, no more, just leave it, just leave it.’ And I was like, ‘No, you stand up for what you believe in; this is wrong,’” Yazzie remembers.

The man’s name, she later learned, was Al Silva; he was the CEO of a large, Texas-based food distributor called Labatt Food Service. That evening he invited Yazzie to join Labatt and start the label her way, with Navajo producers. Since 2012, Yazzie has been recruiting producers whose animals meet Labatt’s quality specifications.

To show what an eligible cow looks like, Yazzie joins Anderson White, one of Padres Mesa’s Navajo cowboys, on some errands. They drive by a neighbor’s pasture where cows of all colors graze on stubby fodder. “That’s where we came from,” Yazzie says, as White turns into a relatively lush ranch field. He stops at a scenic watering hole, where a group of almost all-black cows mosey. “They look like great mothers,” Yazzie swoons. She explains that she looks for livestock like this: vaccinated, square bodies, shiny coats, clear eyes, majority English breed (like Black Angus), of sufficient weight. For ranchers short of the mark, she designs individual plans and works with Inman to make sure they progress.

Labatt buys the meat directly. The distributor pays $0.04/lb over the market price, plus a $35 bonus for animals that reach premium grades. During a good year, producers can now make $900 to $1,000 per animal. The meat is sold under the Navajo Beef label.

White’s personal herd has been part of the program since the beginning. “Carrying on the tradition but with better payment, pretty much,” he says.

In 2012, Navajo casinos became the first Navajo Beef customers. They pay a 25 percent premium for the meat; other distributors “wouldn’t be Navajo beef and people. I think the team doesn’t feel right about that,” says Erik Mrdak, the executive director of food and beverage for Navajo Gaming. The story that accompanies the steaks is worth the extra cost “because ultimately it builds our business, and it builds the nation,” says Navajo Gaming CEO Brian Parrish.

“We all love it,” says Benita Litson, who is Navajo and the director of the Land Grant Office at Diné College. Litson points to the tribe’s food-sovereignty ambitions. “We want to make sure we have access to our traditional locally grown foods, right? That’s kind of our overarching goal.” She’s trying to copy the Labatt model with a small group of sheep producers. Eventually, she wants Navajo businesses to butcher and distribute the meat, too.

Meanwhile, once-devalued Navajo beef has become sought-after; the Navajo producers who had such a hard time selling their cattle can’t keep up with demand. It’s still a small, niche market, but Yazzie has started to recruit producers from other tribes—Jicarilla Apache, Pueblo, Hopi—and broadened the label from Navajo Beef to Native American Beef.

While many ranchers still want more than the allowable 20 cows, Yazzie says, most now recognize the land’s limits. In Yazzie’s own family, an uncle has the permit her grandmother once held. He’s bred new genetics into the animals, and they’re part of Labatt’s program too.

“In a way,” Yazzie says, “the livestock was pretty much probably the thing that kind of brought a sense of pride back to [the relocatees].” She adds that today many producers feel thankful for what they’ve developed on the New Lands.

Anderson White sells his cattle under the Navajo Beef label. “Carrying on the tradition but with better payment, pretty much,” he said.  (Irina Zhorov)

Despite its growth, Labatt’s Native American Beef label is not profitable or self-sufficient; Labatt and the ranchers rely on ONHIR to run Padres Mesa and fix fences, water tanks, and windmills.

When the office was created, in 1981, its work was supposed to take five years. Now, nearly four decades in, ONHIR is slated to close. There’s no timeline in place or a plan for who, if anyone, will take over Padres Mesa, which remains a universally liked ONHIR initiative. Takeovers by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Navajo Nation have been floated as possibilities.

“We don’t know, is the bottom line,” says Larry Ruzow, ONHIR’s legal director. “We know that we’ll be gone, so it won’t be us.”

Silva and Yazzie don’t yet have a plan for sustaining the label without Inman’s and Padres Mesa’s necessary help.

Late one afternoon, Silva arrives at the Ranch with a carful of ribeyes, wearing a shirt with Native American Beef embroidered on the collar. He compares the label to baking bread, which needs just the right conditions and ingredients. Without yeast, “it won’t rise like it’s risen,” he says. “And so we worked diligently to try and communicate that message. If the federal government is not here, it goes back to before they were here: nothing.”

Meanwhile, an hour and a half down the road, at the Twin Arrows Casino’s Zenith Steakhouse, a server tells patrons stories about the families that raised the Native American Beef steaks they were about to order. The meat arrives on enormous oval plates, unadorned, its flavor as striking as the land that fed it.

(Irina Zhorov)

This post appears courtesy of  High Country News.