Water is Life: Bringing farming back to Navajo Nation

Growing Spaces 2020 Food Security Grant Winner: Tyrone Thompson and Chi’Shie Farms

On the first morning of the 26’ Growing Dome Greenhouse build, Tyrone’s Uncle John told us that when constructing a new building it was Navajo tradition to always put the door on the East side of the building and work your way clockwise…following the sun. Otherwise, ‘it gets you all out of whack’. 

Liz Tingley working on a 26' Growing Dome build for Navajo Nation
Liz Tingley leveling a strut for the 26′ Growing Dome Greenhouse

It just makes sense.  Plants, like humans, love the early morning sun.

We followed John’s instructions, locating the door on the East side of the dome, and built the foundation wall clockwise.  Every time we started a new phase of the build; struts, glazing, etc. someone would inevitably ask ‘where should we start?’  And the answer came promptly…’on the East side of course, and work our way clockwise.’ 

Traditional Navajo Hogan
Traditional Navajo Hogan

A Hogan is the traditional home of the Navajo people, with the door always facing to the East to welcome the rising sun for wealth and good fortune. The traditional mud walls also act as a thermal mass, and are energy efficient, requiring only a small fireplace to keep the dwelling warm. We couldn’t help noticing the similarities with the Growing Dome.

Many of the homes we saw on Navajo Nation, including Tyrone’s, were built in the shape of an octagon, with a conical roof.  Combining the traditional shape of the Hogan with modern building materials. 

Navajo Nation Growing Dome Greenhouse Build with Tyrone Thompson
Chi’Shie Farms Crew: Philecia, Tyrone, Brandon, Levena and John

Traditional Navajo Farming

Tyrone Thompson is doing the same thing with his farming, combining traditional Navajo techniques with new technology.  Although he grew up in the Valley (Phoenix area), his maternal clan is (Tsi’naajinii) Black Streak Wood People and his paternal family is African American. 

He met his partner Philecia Yazziē in Phoenix, who is also of Navajo descent.  Tyrone’s mother had a lease on land just outside Leupp, AZ.  So, they moved back to ‘the rez’ to become farmers, and help bring farming back to the Navajo people.

Water is Life

Leupp (pronounced LOOP) sits on the banks of the Little Colorado River.  In stark contrast with the main tributary, the Little Colorado sits dry and baren on its surface.  But underneath there is an aquifer that is the primary source of water for the region. 

Little Colorado River basin sign

There is no running water, so residents must go to a field station and haul water back to their home or farm.  Tyrone must travel 10 miles to get water for his family, his farm and his animals.  But some on the reservation must travel up to 100 miles.  Overall, about 30 percent of homes on the Navajo Nation do not have running water.

The CARES Act

The Navajo tribal government has earmarked $130 million in federal CARES Act funding specifically for water projects.  Simple things like washing your hands is not always possible, leading to a higher rate of COVID on the reservation than other areas in the country.  But it is still a logistical nightmare to develop the infrastructure needed, and there is a Dec 30th 2020 deadline set by the federal government to spend the CARES Act money.

‘We would love to have major projects that would extend a water line to other communities and get more people water, but because of the deadline, we’re just going to have to include those that live with a short distance from a major water line.’

-Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez

Tyrone said there are plans to develop farms alongside the Little Colorado River, using wells as the primary water source, but the funding has not yet been approved for that project.

The Heirloom Clan

In the meantime, Tyrone and Philecia are doing the best they can with what they have.  They currently have two hoop houses, a passive solar greenhouse attached to the south side of their Hogan, a compost station, pigs, ducks, sheep and outdoor gardens.  The Growing Dome will be used for traditional gardening, starts and aquaponics.  Local schools will be able to visit the dome and learn about the various farming techniques utilized inside.

Tyrone Thompson growing starts in his hoop house
Tyrone growing starts in his hoop house

The baby starts will be used to support a broad network of farms and communities on the reservation.  Non-profits, backyard gardens, schools, senior centers and farms reaching as far as 150 miles away will receive transplants from Chi’Shie Farms. 

Tyrone hopes to create the first food hub on Navajo Nation, and even support sister tribes in the region.  His dream is to make the Little Colorado basin the breadbasket of Navajo Nation.  You can follow their progress on his Facebook page.

Tyrone Thompson is legendary for his knowledge and hard work on the reservation, and has been featured in books, articles and TV spots regarding both traditional and modern farming techniques.  He is also active in the community when it comes to other social and economic issues facing Native Americans like suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and diabetes. 

Growing Dome Build

Liz installing a hub on the 26' Growing Dome Greenhouse
PC: @meganhottman

Tyrone, Philecia and their family were so incredibly welcoming from the moment we arrived.  Tyrone’s friends and crew John, Brandon and Levena were also extremely friendly, hard-working, motivated and charismatic.  Their daughters sung traditional Navajo songs for us, demonstrated Navajo string games and regaled us with their amazing artwork every day. 

The first day of the build Tyrone cooked two turkeys in a fire pit, and Philecia prepared all of the fixings.  It was a Thanksgiving Day feast for us all.  Other lunches consisted of traditional Navajo meals like Navajo Tacos, Blue Mush and beef stew.

Every day was truly a blessing for us to be on the farm.  We had a lot of laughs throughout the build and made life-long friends.

Lunch in a greenhouse on Navajo Nation with Tyrone Thompson
Lem, Liz, Janet and Richard eating lunch in Tyrone’s Passive Solar Greenhouse. Photo by Megan Hottman

Liz and I were joined by Richard and Janet Miller, and our friend Megan Hottman.  Richard and Janet were no strangers to life on the reservation and had volunteered their time for other Growing Dome builds both at Navajo Nation and at many other Native American reservations all over the country including Alaska.  Richard is also a Master Gardener and spent a lot of time with Tyrone and Philecia talking shop and teaching them best practices for growing in a greenhouse dome.

Philecia grew up farming on the reservation with her grandmother.  They also had no running water or electricity on their farm, and she thanks her elders for teaching her native traditions.  Philecia recently completed her Organic Gardening certification, and currently gardens at the nearby Star School where her kids also go to school.  She is also excited to practice her new skills in the Growing Dome.

Tyrone Thompson and Megan installing a vent for the Growing Dome Greenhouse on Navajo Nation
Tyrone and Megan installing a panel

They will use ‘lasagna beds’ for the soil, which consists of cardboard, straw bale, sheep manure, food waste, regular soil and topsoil.  This will create a rich, fluffy soil that is alive with microorganisms.  She then plans to grow grapes, lots of vegetables, peaches and strawberries for the kids.  She is looking forward to the Growing Dome being a big ol’ jungle!

We completed the Growing Dome build in just over 4 days, and sadly had to bid farewell to their family and friends with heartfelt elbow bumps.  Our smiles may have been hidden by our masks, but our hearts were beating with joy and thanks for a truly inspiring week.  We could not have asked for a better Thanksgiving gift than to join forces for an amazing cause.

Congratulations to Chi’Shie Farms!

Other ways to support farming and water access on Navajo Nation:

Tolani Lake Enterprises

Water Warriors United


1 Comment

  • Looking forward to the next 6months of utilizing green house dome. Praying the get the water to those in need. Water is one Source of Life and Vital for achievement

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