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Farm Bureau Seeks To Help Needy Navajo Families, But Only If They're Registered To Vote In Utah

Photo of the sheep
Kate Groetzinger
Farmers Feeding Utah, a nonprofit started by the Farm Bureau to help farmers and ranchers move their products, donated 600 sheep to the Navajo Nation.

MONUMENT VALLEY, UTAH — Nearly 100 vehicles lined the road next to Monument Valley High School Monday morning. One by one they entered the school parking lot, where missionaries from the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hoisted live sheep into the bed of each truck. 

“Meat got expensive,” said Araidena Haycock, a single mother near the front of the line. “We’re all not working right now, so the sheep will help a lot with food and everything at home.”

Haycock showed up at 7 a.m., three hours before the sheep distribution was scheduled to start. Even though she pre-registered for the event, she wanted to make sure they didn’t run out. Haycock said the sheep will feed her family of six for a month. 

Most food distribution events run by chapters on the Navajo Nation during COVID-19 have been first-come, first-serve events open to everyone. But this one was slightly different. 

It was organized by a nonprofit called Farmers Feeding Utah, which was formed by the Utah Farm Bureau in May this year. And it targeted elders, veterans, single mothers, people with disabilities, and multigenerational households. The event also required that people be registered to vote in Utah, which meant some residents of Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain were ineligible. 

The nonprofit group purchased over 600 sheep from Central Utah farmers to donate to the Navajo Nation, where COVID-19 has increased economic hardship and left more people in need of food assistance. Rebecca Benally, a former San Juan County commissioner and member of the Navajo Nation, helped organize the distribution in Montezuma Creek, Oljato-Monument Valley, and Navajo Mountain. 

“This is not a centralized giveaway,” Benally said at the Monument Valley event. She appointed people in each community to identify eligible households and pre-register them to receive a sheep. 

But around one third of the members of the Oljato Chapter, which is the local government in Monument Valley, live in Arizona, so they were ineligible for the donations. 

Benally said she added the Utah voter requirement to ensure that sheep only went to people who live in Utah, because Utah Navajos often receive less help from the Navajo Nation than those in Arizona and New Mexico. 

“We get overlooked by the bigger Navajo Nation, because there’s only 8,000 of us,” she added. “During election time we’re usually not significant enough that nobody visits us.” 

But Larry Holiday, who Benally appointed to identify needy households in Monument Valley, said he didn’t think the requirement was a good idea because not everyone who lives in Utah is registered to vote, including some of the elders whom the event was meant to help.

Photo of a man standing outside speaking to a driver in line of vehicles
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
Larry Holiday talks to someone in line to receive a free sheep at a distribution event in Monument Valley. People had to be registered to vote in Utah to receive a free sheep at the event.

Holiday, who lives in nearby Kayenta, Ariz., said he spent about two weeks identifying families who fit the criteria and notifying them about the giveaway. But plenty of people he hadn’t contacted lined up to get a sheep too. He stood at the front of the line, determining who went through. 

He said he sent around 20 people away without a sheep, because he knew they lived in Arizona. But he didn’t make people prove they were registered voters if he knew they lived in Utah. 

“I have a soft heart,” Holiday said. “If I know they live here, I’m going to let them go through.” 

Farmers Feeding Utah distributed another 50 sheep in Navajo Mountain, or Naatsisʼáán, on Monday afternoon, after the event in Monument Valley. The community spans the Utah-Arizona border, and people in both states belong to the Navajo Mountain chapter. 

Hank Stevens, chapter president, said he wasn’t contacted about the donation, and he was disappointed to hear that residents of Arizona weren’t eligible to receive a sheep. 

“In the pandemic we are in, I would like to say ‘Hey, everyone eats at my table,’” Stevens said. “I can’t segregate.”

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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