If your plants need shade to protect them in a hot desert climate, why not grow them under solar panels? This idea, both simple and elegant, is a modern take on the ancient practice that Indigenous tribes have been applying to agriculture for centuries, if not millennia. But now a team of climate researchers in the Southwest are experimenting with ways to apply the practice to the modern era, maximizing water and valuable land at the same time. In order to adapt, we are learning how agriculture affects climate change in relation to indigenous agricultural climate solutions.
In a recent Washington Post piece, “Native Americans’ farming practices may help feed a warming world,” journalist Samuel Gilbert reported on experiments like that of the Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona. The work there, in collaboration with the University of Arizona, is just one of a growing number of research projects that are looking to adapt agriculture and improve energy resilience in the face of a warming climate.
Much of the current work, wrote Gilbert, is drawing from Native Americans’ tradition of shading crops with trees. Using solar panels instead of plants as shade means the crops aren’t competing for water. It’s a perfect, real-world example of combining modern perspectives with ancient wisdom – one of our core tenets at Terra.
Under the shade of these panels are plots with veggies like squash and tomatoes. Not coincidentally, these are known as New World crops which, despite the colonial nomenclature, is the term for produce that’s native to the Americas and predated Europeans’ arrival.
This isn’t the only climate-adjusted trick that Indigenous tribes developed. As Gilbert wrote, scientists on both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border are trying out an agrivoltaic approach, which eschews water-intensive crops like nuts and leafy greens in a place that cannot support it and instead uses the solar panel and low-water crop combination. Elsewhere, rather than diverting water from the Colorado River, for example, researchers are employing rainwater and storm water irrigation to compensate for an increasing water deficit.
Key to these projects is partnership with and learning from the region’s native inhabitants, Gilbert explained. Southwest Arizona is home to the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose reservation is roughly the size of Connecticut. While they have shared their expertise for more than 40 years through avenues like a cooperative farm and foundation, the new search and arguably, respect, for Indigenous agricultural methods rekindles historic tension, too. When looking for permaculture farms near me, you will find actual working solutions to these problems.
Sterling Johnson, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, told Gilbert that while an uptick in “interest in Native ways is generally welcome…it can feel once again like ‘Anglo society taking when they need something. We really would like to see these crops and techniques … still used to serve the Native community.’”
Still, no one is under any illusions about the urgency of their work. As the Southwest gets drier and hotter by the year, the attention researchers are paying to Native resource protection is only intensifying. Finally, as one researcher told Gilbert, some locals are striving to match their crops to the environment – not the environment to their crops.