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Farm apprenticeship bill could help aging workforce in Arizona

Government Shutdown Farmer Payments
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-18 17:45:44-05

AJO, AZ — About 100 miles south of Phoenix and 40 miles from the Mexico border, and on the edge of the Tohono O'odham Nation, is the small town of Ajo, Arizona.

It's a place Nina Sajovec has called home for the past 14 years.

"I came here to do research, fieldwork for my PhD in cultural anthropology," Sajovec said. "I started realizing really early on that good food in this remote, rural community is a privilege."

That's why Sajovec created Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture. It started off as a way to teach people both on and off the reservation how to grow their own food.

They also sold food at their cafe and held a farmer's market. But in March of 2020, everything changed.

"In modern America, you don't think about not being able to access food and suddenly the shelves were empty," Sajovec said.

With only one grocery store in Ajo and one on the reservation, that was a big problem. She says the local church that hosted a food pantry couldn't keep up with the demand, so her center stepped in, completely transforming into an emergency food relief station. Nearly a year later, they're still going.

The food helps Ajo residents like Nathan Mewhinney, who's had trouble finding work over the past year.

"I have children and it was a Godsend at the time, or still is for a matter of a fact," Mewhinney said.

Tribal members also load up their trucks and bring food to the reservation, which has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Sajovec hopes others will see what has happened in Ajo and take a closer look at their own neighborhoods.

"If this happened to our food system, it can happen to yours, your food system can collapse," Sajovec said. "COVID exposed a lot of weaknesses in the industrial food system."

So how do other communities make sure their own food system doesn't collapse? The group believes they may have found part of the answer, and it starts with making sure there are enough farmers in Arizona.

They're advocating for two bills currently going through the state legislature, House Bill 2142 and Senate Bill 1150, that would create a statewide apprenticeship program for farmers. The bills would allocate $1 million to the Arizona Department of Agriculture to run a two-year pilot program for beginning farmers and ranchers.

"This is not your hobby or your weekend thing, but it is a paid apprenticeship program, so they also contribute valuably to the employer, to the trainer," Sajovec said.

She says the workforce development program is vital to the state's economy because farms are slowly disappearing and, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in Arizona is 61 years old.

"We need the next generation to take over those," she said.

The center currently has its own grant-funded program that teaches young people the ins and outs of the field.

Sterling Johnson oversees the group. He says he was born on the reservation, a community with deep agricultural roots that got lost during the forced assimilation of Native American children in boarding schools.

"Those who held onto the traditions only spoke of this verbally," he said.

So today, he's helping keep those traditions alive, teaching future farmers like 28-year-old Juki Patricio, who plans on taking what he's learned back to his village.

"It's a start," Patricio said. "I know it's not going to happen right away, but it's slowly starting, and I could see it."