Brandon Francis grew up dryland farming on the Navajo Nation, but veered in a couple of directions before returning to his agricultural roots.
And, as luck and timing would have it, during the middle of the Gold King Mine spill he was in the middle of research that led to his involvement in monitoring for heavy metals.
“I thought I was poor, like raising sheep and helping out in the cornfield. I go to school, and I find I have this wealth of knowledge that I can share with people. Fort Lewis helped enrich that knowledge,” he said.
Francis, 36, was building houses in Flagstaff, Arizona, when he decided to go back to school. He wanted to help reclaim the coal mines near Black Mesa, Arizona, his hometown on the Navajo Nation. But when he was told only minimum remediation was planned, he decided to change direction.
He transferred from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff to Fort Lewis College and switched his major from geology to environmental studies, with a focus on sustainable agriculture. He decided to go into farming to preserve his history.
His senior thesis focused on the agricultural history of the Navajo people in the San Juan River valley, and it drew from historical documents written by French and Spanish explorers.
Since then, many families have stopped growing their own food, and options for fresh produce is limited. So Francis wrote a hypothetical workshop that he could give to help revive agriculture.
“They don’t have to rely on the supermarkets; they don’t have to rely on other people,” he said.
There are 13 grocery stores on the Navajo Nation, an area roughly the size of West Virgina, Francis said. Compounding the problem, about one-third of the population does not have access to electricity, and, because of this, many residents rely on canned foods including canned meats, which are known to contribute to cancer, he said.
During his senior year in 2015, while he was working on his thesis, Professor Kevin Lombard hired Francis to give community workshops part time for New Mexico State University Agricultural Science Center in Farmington.
His workshops focused on topics such as seed saving, naturally preserving pumpkins and squash and companion planting. Planting corn, beans and squash together is complementary because corn takes nitrogen from the soil, beans restore nitrogen and squash acts as a natural mulch.
Later, he worked with students at a charter school in Shiprock, New Mexico. His gardening philosophy is: Be sure it’s beautiful and simplistic.
“Make it a form of art if you want people to model what you are doing,” he said.
Lombard found him to be a good fit because he speaks Navajo and understands the culture.
“We need more people like Brandon as extension agents. ... He is such a good educator, and he has a passion for teaching,” Lombard said.
While working for the science center, he helped with a backyard gardening program. He assisted setting up 30 gardens for Navajo Nation residents who were disconnected from agriculture. The project aimed to measure the difference gardening would make in their health.
Immediately after the Gold King Mine spill, Lombard, Francis and others on staff started taking soil samples along the San Juan River to understand the health of soil because everyone else was focusing on the water quality.
Since then, as a research lab technician, his focus has shifted to heavy metals in the soil and long-term monitoring.
“That takes up my days and nights, I even dream about it,” he said.
The science center has funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service through 2019 to monitor the soil. Researchers at the center believe the risk from growing plants in the soil is low, and they expect their research will help reassure farmers and consumers the food is safe, Lombard said.
“We’re trying to promote everyone to think more about their wellness and maybe consider a garden. If we have people scared of their soil quality… that’s kind of dampening the effect of wanting to grow anything,” Lombard said.
Francis advises farmers to wash their produce to get rid of any sediment that may have settled on the plant.
He is planning a personal project this spring to study how certain kinds of weeds absorb heavy metals. He wants to see if they could be used as an affordable form of soil remediation.
“Everyone seems to be monitoring, and no one seems to be focused on bioremediation,” he said.
He may use this research for a master’s or doctoral degree in the future.
This spring he plans to keep working at the science center and take part the incubator program at Old Fort Lewis in Hesperus, which provides land and water for those who want to go farming.
He lives at the Old Fort and works as a caretaker there, but he will leave that position for the incubator program.
Eventually, he would like to return to Black Mesa and share the skills he’s learned.
“I am only at the beginning of my efforts to help my people,” he said.