Shelly at agriculture conference: Navajo lands can 'bloom' like Israeli deserts

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, April 11, 2013

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N avajo Nation President Ben Shelly shed tears of hope for a blooming agricultural market on the reservation, while also saying "the way, truth and light" to God is through his son, Jesus Christ.

Shelly's belief in Jesus Christ, known by many Christian and Hebrew followers to be the Savior, came during his keynote address at the Navajo and Israeli Agriculture Gathering for the First Nations. The two-day agricultural conference, held at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center on Tuesday and Wednesday, was an opportunity for Navajo and Israeli farmers to share agricultural practices.

Last December, Shelly visited Israel with wife Martha Shelly, political aide Deswood Tome, who is also Jewish, and various church groups from the Four Corners region to visit the Holy Land for religious and agricultural reasons.

In his speech Tuesday to the 600 or so people here, Shelly appeared to publicly endorse the Jewish and Christian religions as two of the Navajo Nation's religions.

"We are here to present what we see," Shelly said about visiting the Holy Land and how its farms are making the Negev desert bloom. "There is more we can do in the Lord's way."

Shelly was referencing the tour of AMA Agricultural Industries Ltd., Israel's leading agro-tech farm, which uses greenhouse technology to grow and harvest fresh herbs and bell peppers year around.

The president also told the farmers as well as slew of Hebrew and Christian followers that he reported back to the Holy Land on behalf of all Native Americans/Alaskan Natives, who are considered to be one of The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, according to Hebrew religion.

He also added that after reading a book by political philosopher Robert Wolff, he saw how the various sects of religion on the reservation have resulted in differences among the Navajo people.

"We are divided in our religion," he said. "The Navajo or Indian religious culture, our religion, who we pray to, is the Great Spirit, the Lord, but never in that religion, mentions anything about his son, Jesus Christ. But the Christian people do mention Jesus Christ."

His comments were applauded by some of those in the crowd, including Upper Fruitland native Pilar Harwood, who shouted, "Amen!"

He added that both Hebrew and Christian religions only asks its believers to have faith in Jesus Christ.

"We need to follow them," Shelly said. "We need to realize Jesus Christ is who we are. We are his image."

Though Shelly's trip to Israel had religious purposes for churches in the Four Corners region, it also became a government-to-government relationship between the tribe and Israel when he got involved.

He told farmers after visiting the operation of AMA Agricultural Industries Ltd., he became convinced and started visualizing how Navajo lands could "bloom" like the deserts of Israel.

"The government had no say so in all that," Shelly said, adding that Israeli's free-enterprise market helped AMA flourish its operation. As opposed to Israel, Shelly said the Navajo government is modeled after socialism. "Our government is more socialism and that's what they had before," he said. "They're free enterprise and the Navajo people can do that."

Shelly was amazed about how the team of Israeli agricultural experts – Avi and Miriam Amzalag, owners of AMA Agricultural Industries, Ltd., Tzachi Rimon, a second generation greenhouse farmer and Hinon Rietti, a date farmer – utilized farming techniques native to their homelands for prosperous farming operations.

The team of Israeli farmers provided Navajo farmers with workshops on an introduction of "Israel, the Negev – Making the desert bloom," "The Arava – Ein Yahav – Desert Farming," basic agricultural principles and problem solving, and on the pros and cons of Agro and greenhouse technologies.

The president also said a memorandum of understanding between the governments of Israeli and the Navajo Nation would be signed in August to allow for companies like AMA to work with the tribe.

The MOU is expected to be signed in August by Israeli leaders, who will be on a three-day trip to the Navajo Nation.

"Israel has so many advanced technologies in the world and it began with agricultural, technology and infrastructure, and we're going places with this," Tome said.

According to Tome, the MOU between the tribe and Israel would be the first one the tribe will sign with a foreign government. It would include agriculture, tourism, infrastructure, economic prosperity, education, and government relationships in rural areas.

"Everything that the Shelly-Jim administration has in its platform of education, health, economic prosperity, infrastructure and open government – all those are going to be a part of this," Tome explained.

Tome said he's in contact with Jerusalem's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Los Angeles and the Arizona Israeli Business Council about the MOU.

In September, Shelly is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City during the 67th regular session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

"The Navajo Nation is a sovereign government and in order to exercise your sovereign government you need to reach out to other governments, so you get relationships and partnerships going like we did with Israel," Shelly added. "Their commitment is here."

Besides the possible MOU with Israel, Shelly also mentioned potential MOUs with the states of Ukraine and Russia.

Miriam Amzalag, administrative manager of AMA Agricultural Industries Ltd., said the Israeli government supports initiatives like the proposed MOU between Israel and the tribe.

"We know the Israeli government has the capacity to put together cooperative programs and get things going, and often those programs, in the end, are operated by private companies," Amzalag said.

She added collaborations are often between colleges and universities and private businesses. "When the time comes because of the relationships built between us and the Navajo Nation, we could be the ones to be the bridge," Amalzag said.

Regarding the new relationship with the Navajo people, Amalazag sees a common parallel of suffering, according to their political histories such as the persecution of Jews and the ongoing controversy with the Palestinians and the Long Walk.

"The message we can bring, despite the suffering of our nations, is there is a place you can rise above it, step behind it and move forward."

'Hope' central theme of Israeli conference

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK – Matthew Pettigrew attended the Navajo and Israel Agricultural Gathering for the First Nations out of curiosity.

Though he lives on a farm in Hogback, N.M. (and doesn't farm directly in part because of his college studies), he attended the two-day conference to see what the expert team of Israeli farmers would share with Navajo farmers.

"I just wanted to see how they farm," he said, adding that he didn't think the Israeli farmers solved what was on his mind.

Asked what didn't the Israeli farmers cover, Pettigrew said, "I thought they would plant trees to dissolve salt. They didn't."

The high salt concentration Pettigrew talks about is alkaline, a mineral salt found in the soils of the San Juan River valley and the Navajo Reservation.

Pettigrew was interested in finding out what other trees besides indigenous species like greasewood could dissolve alkaline.

What he did find appealing from the Israeli farmers, however, is how their spirit of "hope" helps mankind dig his or herself out of problems to find a solution.

"Hope" was a central theme of the two-day conference. The Israeli farmers showcased their strong belief in God and Jesus Christ, as well as the implementation of green technology as factors that have helped their deserts bloom with lush vegetables of bell peppers, chilies, fresh herbs, artichokes, dates, and palm trees.

The Israeli farmers include Avi and Miriam Amzalag, owners of AMA Agricultural Industries Ltd., which is devoted to developing advanced agro technologies, and second-generation farmer Tzachi Rimon, who is considered one of the leading pioneers of modern super intensive desert agriculture in the field of peppers and tomatoes.

The trio was also joined by second-generation date and palm tree farmer Hinon Rietti, who has been involved in the development of date plantations in developing countries over the last 10 years.

Farmers asked the Israeli experts various questions ranging from what kind of plants can grow in an alkaline climate, how does the reservation's water sources compare to those in Israel, and how does Israel combat the pressure of genetically modified food corporations like Monsanto, among other questions.

The Monsanto question became a sensitive topic of discussion as many of the farmers collectively thought that the giant corporation posed health risks with its genetic products, and interrupted the intellectual design of agricultural farming.

"How can you stop Monsanto or GMOS," asked one farmer.

"We cannot," replied Avi Amzalag, who had an aquatic greenhouse image displayed on the projector his company is envisioning to build in the future. "We're going to go to genetic seeds that don't require a lot of water."

The projected picture of the mobile greenhouse, which would float above ocean waters, portrayed what Amzalag thinks is the inevitable with plants producing "on thin air."

Amzalag's response didn't' quite correlate with Shiprock farmer Gilbert Yazzie.

"The way I see it, it's one or the other," Yazzie said. "But no GMOS!"

Though Amzalag doesn't use genetically modified food seeds on his farm, he did warn it's highly probable it will happen.

Currently, he said, the government of Israel doesn't allow for the farming of GMOS, which is unlike the U.S. Last month, U.S. President Barak Obama signed the Monsanto Protection Act, which protects U.S. biotech companies from litigation if their GMO seeds turn out to be dangerous.

"I came here not to use genetic," Amzalag said, before adding, "This is the future, but not the farmer's future."

During the presentation of Rimon's workshop on "The Arava – Ein Yahav – Desert Farming," one farmer asked if Israel offers government subsidy for farming.

"Today there is no money; its very hard to be a farmer in Israel," Rimon said. "Do it yourself."

At the conclusion of the first day of the conference, Miriam Amzalag and Hinon Rietti held an open forum for questions.

"You have incredible natural resources," Miriam Amzalag told the area farmers, which included some from the Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington areas. "Here in New Mexico, you have everything you need."

Rietti added that compared to Israel Arava Desert, where it rains 3-5 days out of the entire year, the Shiprock region has far more moisture.

Jeannie Benally, extension agent for the University of Arizona's Shiprock office, hopes that Navajo farmers from the region learn how to adopt greenhouses into their agricultural practices.

"Greenhouses, you don't see a lot of that around," she said, adding that more vegetable produce could possibly be available year around from local farmers.

Benally knows the Shiprock area farmers best. There are 934 land use permit users in the agricultural town, she said.

She added that most of the local farmers have access to a gated irrigation system, which is based on an agricultural schedule system. About a handful of farmers use the drip irrigation system - a widely popular watering method in Israel – and, if they do, it's for small gardens, she said.

Based on the workshop provided by the Israeli experts, Benally anticipates a rise in the use of the drip irrigation method. It is possible for farmers to finance a drip irrigation system on their own or through grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, she said.

Yesterday, the conference concluded with a workshop on cooperative farming, a phenomenon that has helped the Israeli farmers flourish and expand their operations and market their products to Europe.

"This concept of coop, it will be interesting," Benally said. She mostly said it was interesting because Navajos generally are territorially with their farmlands.

Robert Tso, pastor for Victory Life Church in Shiprock, called the two-day workshop success, adding that he hopes leaders will rise up to reintroduce the agricultural spirit across the reservation.

Tso, along with a coalition of area churches from the Four Corners region, funded President Ben Shelly's trip to Israel last December and hosted the Israeli farmers on their Navajo Nation visit.

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