As momentum behind adopting regenerative approaches to farming in the United States gains traction, Forum for the Future speaks to Michael Kotutwa Johson, a 253rd-generation farmer and member of the Hopi Nation. Michael reflects on the use of complex ancient traditions in agriculture, the need to challenge assumptions and to recognise that many of the practices, tools and techniques being increasingly utilized are rooted not in something new, but in something old: centuries-long Indigenous wisdom. He also considers how we can change the goals of a failing food system and how integral partnership and collaboration is to forging a way forward.

Here, Michael meets Forum’s Sustainability Strategist, Michelle Stearn in one of three case studies making up the Frontline of Indigenous Agriculture series. As part of Forum’s Growing our Future program, the series aims to put the spotlight on the insights and perspectives of Indigenous agriculturalists working at the forefront of regenerative principles.

Michael stands atop the stone home he built, complete with a seed storage room. In the background, the mesa in the distance.

Since he was a child, Michael Kotutwa Johnson, a 253rd-generation farmer and member of the Hopi Nation, has farmed his homeland using traditional dry farming methods. These methods were passed down to him from his grandfather, and preceding him, a long line of Indigenous agriculturalists. Michael’s locally gathered sandstone home and surrounding plots – sitting at 4,500 feet on the Hopi reservation on what is known as the Little Colorado Plateau – may not seem suitable for crops to the untrained eye. A visitor from a more temperate biome might consider whether farming in arid environments could be the key to creating a thriving food system in a changing climate…

Michael’s role as a researcher at the University of Arizona in Tucson allows him to dive into and challenge widely held assumptions about the environment. Michael was told by agronomists and crop scientists at Cornell University, where he received his undergraduate degree, that corn cannot be grown in environments with less than 30 inches of annual rainfall. In fact, for 3,000 years, the Hopi people have been growing corn and a multitude of other crops without any human-made irrigation in arid regions boasting just 6-10 inches of rainfall per year. To do this, they’ve used a system rooted in complex ancient traditions that have survived under the care of the Hopi people.

Speaking with Forum, Michael notes that pre-colonization, there was an abundance of food in the Hopi community – such surpluses are well documented by the Spanish who occupied Hopi territory in the 16th century. He also challenges the mislabelling of Native peoples as “primitive” for using traditional ecological knowledge and practices. These advanced methodologies not only allowed the Hopi to thrive in spite of land cessions and oppression, they are now increasingly coveted by agronomists, corporations and advocates as they look to grow food in ways that restore soil, build healthy ecosystems and enable thriving communities. 

These efforts increasingly fall under sustainability’s latest buzz phrase, ‘regenerative agriculture’. Many within the regenerative agriculture movement, including the Growing our Future initiative, have advocated for acknowledgement that regenerative practices are rooted in Indigenous wisdom. Michael’s passion and life’s work invokes a deeper interrogation of what it would mean to go beyond acknowledgement, towards meaningful collaboration between old and new practitioners.

On using traditional methods while adapting to new challenges

The practices and principles that build the foundation for Michael’s agricultural methods stem from traditional Hopi dry farming, which relies on staying deeply in tune with the biological indicators centered around soil and water. “All of our techniques are designed to conserve soil moisture,” Michael says. The Hopi people refined and perfected this process over the course of hundreds of generations: synchronized with El Niño weather patterns, calibrated to take advantage of monsoon events and snowmelt, and structured to help the crops withstand high wind and erosion typical to the growing conditions on Hopi territory.

While adapting to changes in weather patterns is not new for Michael or the Hopi community, the onset of global climate change has brought a whole new set of challenges. “The window of planting is getting narrow, because things are getting colder and they're getting hotter. And so it's kind of a dual hit. We're just trying to figure out how to adapt and move forward on this.”

Many see regenerative agriculture as a way to address multiple crises: the drought and aridification of the American Southwest; soil erosion and nutrient depletion; climate change; carbon and methane emissions perpetuated by industrial agriculture. However, to Michael, the way that regenerative agriculture currently permeates across the agriculture sector “doesn’t go deep enough” to recognize the values inherent to Indigenous derived farming. 

On challenging the dominant narrative: bringing values into the story

It’s not just the complex technical aspects of Hopi dry farming methods that are important. To Michael, farming is rooted in the ceremonies and cultural values of the Hopi community. I think people really need to understand that it's not necessarily the process of farming, but it's the principles behind why we farm.” Michael believes that the current regenerative agriculture movement is too laser-focused on processes, missing the mark on acknowledging the fundamental values that should underpin the agricultural system. “There's not really a deep understanding that this soil is alive,” he says. “We're just not planting to plant. We're planting to contribute.”

The corn grown by the Hopi people is unique to the place, principles, and practices, and values of the people. Hopi corn and the relationship Michael’s people have with this crop has ensure their survival for over 3000 years.

The regenerative agriculture movement must focus more on place-based values and principles than on discreet practices, such as the typical cover cropping and no-till methods currently serving as hallmarks. Clearly, those methods would not work on a farm like Michael’s on Hopi land. What makes his farm regenerative are the values imbued in every agricultural practice. As Michael puts it, “never take more than what you need, and to give back to what you take.”

Michael intends to revitalize Hopi farming to restore traditional foods that are incorporated in his and his community’s ceremonies. It’s a virtuous cycle, as the ceremonies lay the foundation for the farming practices to be implemented. “Our [Hopi] systems are so resilient because they have this cultural belief that underpins [them],” Michael shares. “The values are not only my values, but at one time, I feel, were embedded in human populations across the globe.”

Michael sees himself as part of a wider movement of Indigenous peoples working to “create the next wave of scientists” using traditional knowledge to preserve the resilience and survival of his community – and to pass on that knowledge and key tools to the next generation. “There's pockets of real resiliency around the globe now,” Michael observes.  As a faculty member of the Indigenous Resilience Center at the University of Arizona, he is spreading the word about the deeper meaning behind Indigenous agricultural methods.

On changing the goals of a system designed to work against the land

Michael reflects on a critical paradox in our current system: supplementing the soil with nutrients from synthetic, fossil-based fertilizers would actually become obsolete “if we were to have taken care of the soils like we should have, in the first place. We’re putting a band aid on something that's caused by our desire to produce more than what we can possibly eat.” He goes on to share how a large percentage of grain produced in the U.S. does not feed humans; instead, calorically speaking, 36% of crop production is used as animal feed, of which 12% is usable by the time it reaches American plates. This inefficiency is a symptom of an agriculture system that contributes to 11.2% of the countries’ greenhouse gas emissions as a sector.

The world is waking up to the failures of this system, with dozens of major corporations committed to transition to regenerative practices. But when farmers and agribusinesses take regenerative practices out of context of Indigenous place-based value systems, they are often faced with the same barriers and challenges of an extractive agriculture system.

To Michael, farmers are “stuck without a system to help them change over to regenerative agriculture. The bottom line has always been efficiency and quantity.” Conventional farmers are trapped in the current risk-averse financial system that promotes yield maximization, with little room for adopting regenerative methods. Given that it takes an average of 3-5 years to shift from conventional to regenerative practices, a systemic transition is needed; one that is based on regenerative principles and supported by financial mechanisms that recognize and reward the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture.

One solution that Michael proposes is to focus on the proven nutritional and health benefits of regeneratively grown products. “If ‘regenerative’ would talk about quality, the health and well-being of humans and the population, then we'd be a lot better, and people would be paying more money for that. But right now, they're going to pay [for] the cheapest stuff.” While organic certifications have forged a significant premium market, regenerative standards have a long way to go in recognizing the environmental and social outcomes associated with transition. “It’s an uphill battle, but I think it can be done,” Michael insists. “It's going to have to be done.”

Reflections on the past, present and future of farming in Hopi communities

Native communities’ methods of growing and distributing food locally and regionally should be seen as a model for wider efforts to transition our current agricultural system to better meet the needs of communities in disruptive times. Hopi communities have a track record of “two to three thousand years of how you distribute food properly,” Michael says. “I think the thing that's really lacking here in the United States is the knowledge of those ancient systems. How do those old systems work? How did nobody go hungry?”

Those systems have persevered thanks to the resilience of the Hopi people. As a recent example, Michael cites the efforts by grassroots community groups on reservations to distribute food during the COVID-19 supply chain meltdown, to meet the needs of an estimated 48% of Native people who experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. The traditions – unique to each tribe – served as vital tools to community response in lockdowns and food shortages in tribal communities. “As poor as we are,” Michael says. “We're still taking care of ourselves. We're still using distribution mechanisms that work.”

“We have over 300 native-led, grassroots-led organizations who do things in agriculture,” Michael shares – many of whom were active in the distribution efforts on reservations during the pandemic. “But they're not funded properly,” he observes. “We need to have the resources pumped into these tribal communities in order to build the infrastructure necessary to actually continue what we've been doing.” Although headed in the right direction, with the help of groups like the Native Farm Bill Coalition who fought to get over 63 provisions designed specifically for tribal farmers in the 2018 US Farm Bill, USDA policies and programs still need improvements to become more accessible and culturally appropriate.

Michael explains the purpose of the room where his corn is ground into flour and the important role Hopi women play in Hopi agriculture.

On partnerships for change: deep collaborations forge the path to regenerative agriculture 

The traditional Hopi approach to sharing and collaboration informs Michael’s current view on how stakeholders can collaborate to shift the system. In an effort to create symbiotic partnerships, Michael falls back on two simple questions: “What are potential partners bringing to the table, and who will be impacted?”

He refers back to the formation of the Hopi society, when migrants would approach Hopi villages and engage in a dialogue. “The people would ask What can you bring to us to help our community?’” he shares. It’s all about ensuring that potential partnerships will have a direct positive impact, and that funding and infrastructure ends up in the hands of the changemakers themselves.

With increasing attention on Indigenous communities as solution-holders, a mounting challenge is that communities “are getting tired of people coming in doing research, writing papers, and then that's it. You know, people extracting information,” Michael says. He goes on to ask “What is going back to the community?” For example, the cooperative extension programs at land grant universities could be a beacon for new ways of collaborating between academic institutions and tribes in ways that build alliances and adaptive methods. But first, Michael points out, these institutions “need to be aware that they're sitting on ceded land of Indian peoples.” This should inform the universities’ mandate to engage more deeply and meaningfully to promote capacity building and technology use.

Real collaboration, to Michael, is deciphering and implementing the ways that true symbiotic exchange can happen. In this exchange, external partners looking for data and information from tribes would in turn provide funding and infrastructure to communities. “We need to figure out ways to collaborate more than just sending a box of Christmas presents every year. We need to figure out, why can't they make their own Christmas present? Everybody has the skills and the tools. How do we lift up those cultures, lift up those societies? That's what it's really about.”

Michael explains the lay of the land, detailing how the unique hydrology of the valley is used to get the most out of the summer monsoon rains to increase the soil moisture potential of the plot.

Michael’s story is one of three stories as part of our spotlight on regenerative agriculture in the United States. The Frontline of Indigenous Agriculture series aims to tell the stories of those on the frontline of regenerative principles and to explore what can - and must - be learned from Indigenous voices as the food transition gathers space.

Find out more with Spring Alaska Schreiner of Sakari Farms and with Katy and Jerry Jondreau of Dynamite Hill Farms. 

The Frontline of Indigenous Agriculture series is part of Forum’s Growing our Future program.