Hemp farm neighbors complain of smell, lights, use of water
It’s not easy being Dineh Benally’s neighbor.
Loretta Bennett and Marietta Lister live down a narrow road in Shiprock and for years it’s been a safe and peaceful place to grow their children and grandchildren. It’s been a good area to raise horses, and grow alfalfa, fruits and vegetables.
But this picturesque surrounding changed drastically once Benally took it upon himself to bring in outside workers in order to develop a hemp farm without consulting his neighbors. “We have a lot of greenhouses … It gives a bad skunk odor,” said Bennett. “They never approached me … All of a sudden I saw all these greenhouses go up.”
It was only supposed to be a pilot project, or at least that’s what Bennett understood, but the next thing she knew huge greenhouses were being constructed a few feet from her home.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” said Bennett. “Last year, they had what he called a pilot project where he planted stuff out there with weeds combined; it was messy.
This year, he decided to grow greenhouses and it stinks.” The stench of hemp is described to be just as potent as that of marijuana. When driving on the narrow dirt road past Benally’s home, fields of green plants can be seen on one side of the road.
On the other side rows of greenhouses are being constructed in what might as well be the Bennett’s and Lister’s back yard. Bennett is tired of the smell, and she also doesn’t like the bright grow lights that shine through her windows at night.
Bennett grows alfalfa and Lister grows produce, but the water from their irrigation line has been dismal. They blame the wells Benally drills in order to claim the water for his hemp. “They are still getting water from our irrigation,” said Lister. “(I’m) trying to get my alfalfa field cut here and I didn’t give it much water. It didn’t grow much. If he has that kind of money, why can’t he do something about the irrigation?”
Trying to grow a small garden, grass for cattle and alfalfa is practically impossible when water sources are scarce. Bennett can’t compete with the sheer size of Benally’s hemp production, or the money that he is putting into getting the project running. “We can’t afford big equipments like a swather or bailer to work a whole farm so we rely on the chapter,” said Lister. “They tell us to get back to farming,” said Bennett. “Plant good stuff for your kids, for yourself, and teach your kids how to do this. But what is he (Benally) planting? That’s not what they tell us to plant.”
In the few days since the Navajo Nation Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Benally for illegally growing, producing, manufacturing, transporting, licensing and selling industrial hemp within the Navajo Nation, Benally has persisted with his hemp operation.
The former Navajo Nation president, vice president and congressional candidate currently serves as the San Juan River Farm Board president, and during a June 30 meeting he informed farm board members of a June 15 hearing in Shiprock regarding the lawsuit. He said the judge sided with him and he will continue to grow.
“They also passed an order to issue a temporary restraining order to stop production and stop growing,” said Benally during the meeting. “You, as a farm board, and myself know I’ve been growing this for the past three years. We went to court. The judge denied the order of the Department of Justice or the attorney general. Right now we are moving forward with our growing and production of our farms out here.”
Benally doesn’t only have a hemp farm growing on his property. He has hemp production sites scattered throughout the communities of Shiprock, Hogback, and most recently Gadiiahi. These farm lands belonging to others. This is what Bennett and Lister don’t understand: How is he able to use these lands?
“That attorney general’s order was denied,” said Benally. “You can’t just come in because these farms belong to the individual farmers and the individual farmers determine what they want to grow. That’s what the judge ruled on.” Pushed on this statement, board member Tracy Raymond asked for an opinion from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “What does the BIA stand on that?” asked Raymond. “I always thought the regulation in the CFR that these are all trust lands. At that point the BIA is involved in it. The statement saying the farmland belongs to the individual farmer, is that true?”
The BIA representative at the meeting said he didn’t feel comfortable answering the question since this is in litigation, but said he would check on it. Benally said this question will be addressed during a future court hearing. He apologized for not talking with his neighbors before erecting the greenhouses, and said he will talk to one of the affected families to address their concerns.
Once you leave Benally’s hemp plantation, which has numerous Asian workers in the field, and make your way to Bea Redfeather-Benally’s (no relation) plot of land there is other activity happening.
A few non-Navajo workers, who Redfeather-Benally said are Mexican, are constructing a fence to support a tarp in order to keep the prying eyes away. Like Bennett and Lister, Redfeather-Benally is worried about the non-Navajo workers who are working near young children, including her own.
She, too, is disgusted by the pungent smell of hemp; she fears for her neighbor’s safety because the woman lives alone; she worries about the dogs she fosters because already two of them have been run over by Benally’s fast-driving workers.
It comes back to how Benally was able to get the land to produce hemp. “We have water here, which was put up for us, the irrigation water,” said Redfeather-Benally. “They tried to approach me and I chased them off. They’re going around making deals like that.”
She described how her elderly neighbor was approached by Benally and offered $1,000 an acre to lease his land, but he turned down the offer and said his land was for his kids. Redfeather-Benally said there are other tactics Benally has taken to get farmers to give up their land.
Although Benally may have started all his production three years ago, as he said, the three farmland owners noticed the quick development of the greenhouses began this spring, when the coronavirus hit the Nation extremely hard. They believe Benally is using this time to ramp up production while the Nation is closed until July 26. The workers even continue their hemp farming during weekend lockdowns and evening curfews, Redfeather-Benally said.
Redfeather-Benally said she can’t get ahold of any of her local leaders, so she plans to start a petition to remove Benally from his farm board position. As one of many concerned Shiprock community members she said she has started posting pictures and videos of hemp workers in the field across from her residence on social media.
She said Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton left a comment expressing her support for Benally. “Hemp is not illegal on the Navajo Nation,” Charles-Newton responded to an emailed list of questions sent to the speaker’s office by this reporter.
“A revamp of Title 17 during the 23rd Navajo Nation Council decreased the THC level, and no regulations were put in place regarding hemp. “Hemp production is happening up and down the San Juan River, not just in Shiprock,” she said. “Other farmers have taken up production of hemp.”
Delegates who are usually vocal about the plight of their community members aren’t saying much about Benally, even after numerous community members complained. Charles-Newton said the situation is under investigation, and the Resource and Development Committee is dealing with it. The Times reached out to RDC Chair Rickie Nez and received nothing as of press time.
The Times also reached out to Delegate Amber Crotty, who represents Gaadiahi. She had not answered at press time.
The only entities that appear to be responding to the situation are the Navajo Nation Department of Justice and Navajo Nation Police. “We started getting reports on the issue that hemp fields are being grown,” said Chief of Police Phillip Francisco.
One of the main concerns for Francisco is finding out whether Benally is growing hemp or marijuana. The plants are identical except for their levels of the psychoactive component, THC. So they had the plants tested. Anything above 0.3 percent THC is defined as marijuana and is illegal on the Navajo Nation.
“We sent some to the lab … legally we are at a crossroads,” explained Francisco. “No lab can actually verify the threshold of hemp and marijuana, so we are searching for a lab that can do that, and that can be accepted in court. We don’t know if it’s marijuana or hemp.”
The only entity that is allowed to grow hemp on the Navajo Nation is New Mexico State University. The tribe has given NMSU researchers permission to grow industrial hemp on a small parcel of land they lease within the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry property purely for research and development purposes. In order for the university to get the 200-square-foot plot to grow hemp, it had to go through Council and even speak to residents.
During a previous Shiprock Chapter meeting, Charles-Newton’s tone was different when it came to NMSU’s hemp project. She said this venture needed to be translated and explained to the Navajo people before it could go any further, and that there was no supporting resolution from her chapter about this cultivation.
She was one of four delegates who voted no on the project. “I have to speak for the people,” said Charles-Newton at the time. “I know what hemp and marijuana is. If it were just up to my vote personally alone, I probably would’ve voted green. “But my job is not to represent myself; it’s to represent the people,” she said. “I said ‘The people have said nothing about this to me so I have to vote red.’”
In May, the NMSU hemp pilot project was extended by Navajo Nation Council and signed into law by President Jonathan Nez. In the extension, it includes expanding the hemp project from 200 sq. ft. to 5 acres for the university. Even with this expansion for NMSU, it still doesn’t match to all the land Benally has turned into a hemp farm, without going through the same hoops as NMSU, throughout the Northern Agency.
Redfeather-Benally said she understands people are for hemp production because it could bring economic development to the Nation, but so far Benally’s operation seems to be employing foreign workers rather than Navajos. She also doesn’t believe the crop is only hemp and believes marijuana is being cultivated as well.
“People say, ‘It’s hemp, know the difference,’” said Redfeather-Benally. “I know the difference. It’s easy for them to say because it’s not in front of their residence. They don’t see what we see. They don’t go through what I go through.”