Michael Kotutwa Johnson is an environmental policy expert in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. He is also a Hopi dryland farmer. He sat down with Nexus Media to share centuries-old techniques for growing food on an unforgiving landscape. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Agriculture is who we are — the way we plant things, the way we take care of things, the way we nurture things. Before we had ceremonies, before we had everything else, we were farmers. We plant corn to fit the environment. We don’t try to make the environment fit the corn.

The Hopis migrated from places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, and we took our corn with us. We’re raising the same corn that we’ve raised for thousands and thousands of years. A lot of what we do is subsistence farming. It doesn’t go to the supermarket.

Ancient varieties of corn. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

When I first get home in April, I start looking for the greenery, like rabbitbrush, that’s coming up out of the ground. If there’s a lot of greenery coming up, particularly plants that have a shallow root system, I know we’re going to have a good season. Usually we plant to a depth of 8 to 12 inches. If we get a bad drought year, then we have to go down at least 2 feet.

Rabbitbrush. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

From April until the end of July, we don’t get any rain, but our plants are vibrant. We don’t have any manmade irrigation. Instead, we plant further apart to allow roots to grow laterally. Roots are mining for water, they’ve been documented going out 20 feet from our corn plants. In traditional planting, we step off about 9 feet between plants. In a drought year I’ll spread my planting out further. If it’s a wet year, I’ll move everything closer. If it’s a good year, I don’t have to water anything.

Corn thriving in dry soil. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

From the time corn is planted, to the time that it’s harvested, to the time that it’s distributed and put away, everyone in Hopi society has a role. Planting is mainly done by the men, and when the crop is taken off the field it belongs to the women. They’re the ones who distribute it throughout the community and do seed selection for the following year.

Johnson’s father, Col. Caleb Johnson (left); great-grandfather, Poleyestewa (center); and grandfather, Fred Johnson (right) farmed corn. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

Our fields only average 2 to 5 acres. Everything’s done by hand. We have some mechanization, where we’ve taken some of the best of what Western agriculture has to offer and we’ve adapted it over time. For example, the one-row planter allows us to plant at two feet if we need to. We also have a straight-blade cultivator that keeps the moisture locked in the soil, only taking off the weeds.

Michael Kotutwa Johnson. Source: Maria Elena Peterson

Stone is one of our plant protections. And when we know we’re going to have a big sandstorm, we’ll also go over and cover the beans that are coming out with sand. The sandstorm just blows over — we’ve buried the plants and they’re fine. We also don’t plant just one seed, we plant 4 to 5 seeds. That’s to overcome the things that might dig them up, or to compensate for a plant that might not survive.

A crop hides behind a rock. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

The insects we deal with basically affect our squash plants, and we’ll just handpick the eggs off. Our type of farming does build character. We’re used to going through periods where we don’t get anything. Say a kangaroo rat devastates a freshly planted field, or we get a hailstorm that wipes out a watermelon patch. We’re used to that.

Worm damage. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

Most Hopis don’t know what climate change is, but we’ve been dealing with climate for 1,000 years, so we know how to adapt. You have to adapt, otherwise you die and disappear. We already have the techniques. We already have the knowledge. The question is how can we get more people to participate in this type of lifestyle.

Johnson’s home. Source: Michael Kotutwa Johnson

I want to bring more Hopi back to farming, and to involve the whole community. The USDA subsidizes American farmers, but they don’t subsidize small subsistence farms like the Hopi. Commercial farmers get subsidized for applying conservation practices, but because we already have traditional management practices, USDA won’t subsidize us.

Getting more people involved in it, making Hopi a healthier society, that’s where the federal government could come in and help us out.

This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.