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  • Noah Wurtz

How the Maya Community is Redefining Farming in Nebraska

By Noah Wurtz


In 2019, a bomb cyclone tore across Nebraska, submerging the state under the worst flood it had seen in 50 years. “All of our soil was flowing into the Nebraska River,” recalled Graham Christenson, a leader in the Nebraska regenerative farming movement and founder of GC Resolve an organization that . The storm hit Midwest farmers hard, foreshadowing future weather events whose size and intensity will be magnified by climate change. 


Less than a year later, the Maya community of Omaha, Nebraska, gathered to discuss plans for the future. Since 2007, the Nebraska-based non-profit Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim (CMPI) has been dedicated to empowering the 4,000 Q’anjob’al Maya people living in Omaha, Nebraska. Communidad Maya regularly holds community meetings where the community can have a direct say in the organization’s initiatives. This time, the Maya had gathered to talk about land. 


With the support of Agrarian Trust, Communidad Maya is planning to acquire 310 acres of farmland in Eastern Nebraska. Their new initiative, Maya Regeneration Project, aims to provide Maya farmers with economic opportunities and a space to reconnect to their cultural and spiritual traditions.  The Project seeks to actively heal the land by building on the latest regenerative agriculture practices with centuries of Maya agrarian knowledge.


As climate events like the 2019 bomb cyclone grow in size and number, projects like Maya Regeneration Project will play a key role in creating a more resilient and just food system. Creating land access for farmers - especially those historically excluded from land ownership - is critical to this work. Through helping CMPI acquire and conserve the land through a pioneering model of community land ownership known as Agrarian Commons, Agrarian Trust is.


For the Nebraska Maya, access to land means an opportunity to heal after a history of violence and displacement. Between 1980 and 1983, at the peak of a state-led genocide against Indigenous people, 1.5 million Maya fled Guatemala. Today, thousands of Maya are still forced to flee discrimination, lack of economic opportunity, and state violence in their home country and to seek refuge in the United States, where they are confronted with a new set of challenges, including food insecurity, depression, alcoholism, and spiritual loneliness.


According to Luis Marcos, the executive director of Communidad Maya, this cycle of displacement has led the roughly 8,000 Maya living in Nebraska, 4,000 of whom live in Omaha, to seek out new sources of economic opportunity and spiritual belonging. 


“Since the 1980s, we’ve been talking about how we articulate our presence here,”  said Marcos,  “We always talk about our collective rights, and we always talk about keeping our identity and our inherent right to self-determination.” To this end, Communidad Maya leads educational programming centered on transmitting Maya culture to future generations and a public health initiative tailored to the Maya community. Maya Regeneration, Communidad Maya’s latest project, aims to revitalize the community’s connection to Earth.


“As the Maya nation, we have a spiritual relationship with Mother Earth,” said Marcos, “We really believe that Earth is our mother, not a resource. And as a displaced Indigenous nation, when we are forced to come into metropolitan areas, we lose that spiritual connection with Mother Earth. Maya Regeneration attempts to return to that spiritual relationship with Mother Earth.”


According to a statement released by Maya Regeneration, the land will act as 1) A training center for Maya farmers, 2) Maya Center for multi-institutional and interdisciplinary soil, water and human health research, 3) a Center for cultural exchange, and eco-tourism (local, national and international) 4) Center for Spiritual and Mental Health, and 5) A revenue-generating business entity. In addition, the land will be community-led and operated according to the principles of regenerative agriculture.


The Regeneration Maya Project comes at a turning point in US agriculture, as regenerative farmers like Graham Christenson are sounding the alarm on the unsustainable practices of conventional farming. According to a 2014 statement from the United Nations, the world may only have 60 harvests left at the current rate of soil erosion.


In Nebraska, the consequences of imposing industrial farming methods onto prairie ecologies are carved into the landscape, with the remaining prairie land sitting, on average, one foot above neighboring prairie land. A 2022 study by uses these ‘escarpments’ to estimate that, in the past 160 years, the Midwest has lost 50 billion tons of soil. 


Tillage-based farming, a lack of cover cropping, and other conventional farming techniques are largely to blame. Tillage, which turns the soil to prepare it for seeding, breaks the soil apart, releasing organic material and reducing its structural capacity to hold water and nutrients. This degraded soil is especially vulnerable to rain and wind erosion. According to Christenson, Nebraska loses 3 tons of soil per acre yearly to wind and rain erosion.


The destruction of healthy soil has wide-ranging repercussions, including on the state’s water supply. Run-off from heavily artificially fertilized land pollutes the state’s water supply, while the aquifer that supplies farmers with water is rapidly being drained. A study by the University of Nebraska posits a link between increased cancer rates among children and high levels of nitrates, a component found in synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, in the state’s drinking water. This extractive ethos is not sustainable for the soil or farmers.


The Maya Regeneration Project, on the other hand, relates to the land with the same healing spirit that animates its work with the Maya community. By building on regenerative agriculture with Maya spiritual and cultural tradition, Maya Regeneration will restore the soil and resilience of the land’s ecosystem. The organization is collaborating closely with Christenson to convert part of the 310 acres of land into a regenerative food forest, where food-bearing native trees and perennial bushes will be planted to hold and restore the land to its full potential. 


This land acquisition will be made possible partly through Maya Regeneration’s partnership with Agrarian Trust. Since 2020, Agrarian Trust has helped communities found Agrarian Commons, local non-profits that hold land in the interest of the community for regenerative agriculture in perpetuity. Agrarian Commons also gain access to Agrarian Trust’s national fundraising network when acquiring land. Maya Agrarian Commons, which will hold the land and provide Maya Regeneration Project with a 99-year lease, will receive the full support of Agrarian Trust in acquiring the land and permanently removing it from the marketplace.


Less than two percent of farmland in the United States is owned by Indigenous farmers today - in Nebraska, the figure is just 0.1 percent. Supporting land access for Maya Regeneration means addressing centuries of harm against Indigenous peoples by Western settler Colonialism and elevating the voices of Indigenous stewards to their rightful place at the head of the regenerative agriculture and food sovereignty movements. Stay tuned for our upcoming fundraiser and this unique opportunity to support Indigenous land access and leadership in the regenerative agriculture movement by visiting agrariantrust.org and signing up for our newsletter.


Noah is the  Agrarian Commons Communications & Outreach Coordinator at Agrarian Trust.

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