Got a hankering for a choice or prime cut of beef? Head to the Navajo Nation, where quality, locally grown beef is available for the first time to customers at select grocery stores.
The Navajo Nation, partnering with Labatt Food Service and Bashas’ supermarkets, is offering Navajo ranchers the unprecedented opportunity to sell home-grown beef at stores on the reservation. In a soft opening earlier this month, Labatt Food Service, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, began supplying Bashas’ supermarkets with Navajo-grown beef.
“When you walk into the store, you’ll see the ‘Native American Beef’ sticker,” said Kimberly Yazzie, marketing beef specialist for Labatt Food Service’s Native American Beef program. “That means the beef is coming only from ranches that are owned by Native Americans, on Native land.”
The Native American Beef program provides technical assistance to ranchers to ensure their beef is choice- or prime-grade before going to market. Launched on the Navajo Nation in 2009, the program helps preserve ranching jobs in an economy where unemployment hovers above 50 percent. It also provides a source of locally grown food customers can trace all the way back to the ranch, Yazzie said.
“More than ever before, the customer wants to know where food comes from,” she said. “Now we can trace the food from the ranch to the feed yard, all the way to where it’s broken down into retail cuts and consumed. We can protect the food chain from producer to the center of the plate.”
Labatt Food Service began working closely with Navajo ranchers about five years ago, said Ken Monacelli, director of the Native American Beef program. Its goal was to help create economic opportunity while ensuring Navajo ranchers got fair and above-market prices for their beef.
This meant education, both for Labatt and the ranchers, Monacelli said. Ranchers learned how to clean up their herds through genetic know-how and smart breeding to produce higher-grade beef. Labatt representatives traveled the reservation and listened to Navajo ranchers, who have historically battled poor government oversight, harsh conditions and negative stereotypes surrounding Native-grown beef.
“What we heard was that ranching was becoming a dying art,” Monacelli said. “Not just because of drought and other conditions, but also because of how Navajo ranchers were treated at sale barns. We learned that Native American ranching as a whole had a reputation for low-quality meat.”
Changes came quickly, however, Yazzie said. In 2013, Navajo ranchers made history when their choice- and prime-grade beef was served during the grand opening of Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort, near Flagstaff, Arizona.
But the demand for Native beef quickly outpaced the supply, and Navajo ranchers couldn’t keep up with inventory, Yazzie said. Labatt filled the gap with beef from nearby tribes and pueblos as it continued to work with the Navajo Nation to improve genetics and herd health.
In 2015, Labatt processed more than 1,200 head of cattle from Navajo ranches, and in 2016, Navajo beef appeared on the menus of all four Navajo casinos, as well as select hotels and restaurants across the reservation.
Its debut on the shelves of grocery stores signals a victory for food sovereignty on a reservation that often bears the label of food desert. Forty-two Navajo families from 23 ranches are currently participating in the Native American Beef program.
“It’s empowering to see Navajo food products for sale at supermarkets on the Navajo Nation,” Navajo Vice President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. “It is our hope this effort will continue to grow.”
The majority of Navajo-grown beef comes from a 365,000-acre plot in Nahata Dzill, Arizona, where hundreds of Navajo families were relocated from Hopi lands in the 1970s. Here, ranchers formed the nonprofit 14-R Ranch Corporation and were the first to partner with Labatt Food Service to produce high-quality beef.
“Five years ago, we were taking our product to the local auction and not getting much in return because no one wanted to take the risk of buying Native beef,” said Al Pahi, president of the 14-R Ranch Corporation. “Now demand for our product keeps growing. We still have challenges, but our head count has increased every year and the customer base keeps growing.”
Navajo-grown beef is available at the Bashas’ stores in Crownpoint, New Mexico, and Window Rock, Arizona. Labatt plans to expand to additional Bashas’ locations in early 2017.