Just north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the people of Santa Ana Pueblo continue to live in accordance with the Earth. There, among the high desert foothills, the tribe participates in several agricultural enterprises as a means to honor tradition and provide economic opportunity.
“We utilize all of our lands—whether through farming and agriculture or other ways—in order to preserve our longstanding traditions and to use our water rights,” said Santa Ana Pueblo Director of Agriculture Joseph Bronk.
The Santa Ana Pueblo began its first agribusiness venture in 1987 and has since added a blue corn grain mill; garden center; nursery that supplies whole native, drought-tolerant plants; and most recently, a vineyard.
The Santa Ana Pueblo leadership strives to diversify tribal investments through agricultural practices to benefit its members. However, finding crops that will grow in the tribe’s soil conditions can prove difficult.
“The land above the valley has no nutrient quality that’s notable, but grapes can grow on relatively poor soil if it has good drainage,” Bronk said.
Knowing a vineyard was a viable option, he approached the tribal council with his new idea.
“The other agricultural enterprises were doing well, but I wanted to see if we could get a higher return on producing grapes,” he added.
With the council’s support, Bronk began work to secure capital through the Administration for Native Americans. But first, he had to find a market for the tribe’s grape harvest.
Bronk approached Gruet, a New Mexico-based winery, and the company agreed to purchase the tribe’s annual grape harvest. Gruet Winery is one of the largest producers of Champagne Method sparkling wine in the U.S.
“It was very competitive and hard to get the funding,” he said. “You have to score a 95 percent or better to receive ANA funding.”
The Santa Ana Pueblo received a 3-year SEDS grant from ANA in 2012, and then planted 30 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier varietals. After the vines matured four years, the grapes were ready for winemaking. Gruet released the 2016 Yamaya Rose in 2017, which became the first Native-American produced wine.
Today, the company processes the Santa Ana Pueblo’s grapes, then bottles and ships the wine to customers worldwide.
“We’re very thankful for the partnership,” Bronk said. “They’ve been a great company to do business with.”
Although Bronk did not grow up with any direct ties to agriculture, as a child in the Philippines, he formed an interest in math, science and plants. After he arrived in the U.S. in 1969, he pursued his talents and studied agriculture at the University of Auburn. He brings more than 40 years of industry experience to the department.
“Agriculture is why the Santa Ana people have survived as a community. More than just the management of soils and crops, agriculture is an integral component of Santa Ana lifestyle and religion,” he said. “The cycle of religious ceremonies is a function of the agricultural seasons.”
The Santa Ana Pueblo’s development strategies support their traditions to protect the land and provide for its people, and the vineyard continues the tribe’s dedication to these efforts.
Its vineyard has a full-time staff of two, one farm manager and employee, but when harvest season arrives late July and early August, the staff expands up to 60.
“Our traditional feast days at the end of July, and since our harvest usually comes right after it, it can get really tricky because this place closes down. We always pray that it doesn’t come earlier than that,” he said, then laughed. “But we’ve got about six other Pueblo communities around us. The people that are there in the adjacent Pueblo communities, they come in and help us harvest the grapes.”
The vineyard has been so successful that Bronk and his team are looking to expand, which could provide even more opportunities to the Santa Ana Pueblo and the Native communities nearby. And as weather conditions change, the Santa Ana Pueblo must plant more to mitigate damages from late spring frosts. This, coupled with an increased market demand, could require the agricultural enterprise to hire more personnel.
The grape enterprise embodies the Santa Ana Pueblo’s desire to develop opportunity for its members through traditional agricultural and honors the land in which they have called home for hundreds of years.