SELLS - For aspiring farmer Vernal Sam, 24, the physical labor came easily.
Like many Tohono O'odham, he'd helped out on his uncle's cattle ranch as a kid, bringing in cash when his family needed it, and he'd helped his grandfather bury traditional tepary beans and squash seeds in the brown clay soil.
What felt different about his new farm apprentice job was the sense of possibility within the bounds of the reservation.
"It opened up another path, just seeing what our tradition is about," he says.
Sam was expelled from school in eighth grade for fighting, and had watched friends go down the path of drugs and gangs. Living at home at age 22, he saw few job openings on the sprawling reservation.
"A lot of people go off-nation for better jobs," he says. "I always wanted to stay here."
When farm manager Noland Johnson mentioned an internship - part of a new training program to prepare youth for careers in agriculture - Sam dug in. He's now looking to start his own farm on family land that hasn't been cultivated in a generation.
For program leaders, Sam's inspiration- and the budding plans of other apprentices - is a victory.
"They are making concrete plans to actually make a living as a farmer," says Terrol Johnson, Noland's brother and CEO of the nonprofit Tohono O'odham Community Action, or TOCA. "That is a tangible result."
The brothers helped launch TOCA's New Generation of Tohono O'odham Farmers apprenticeship program in 2011. The program grows food on the Johnson family's land in the Sells district and has 15 acres under cultivation. It also is developing the 125-acre Papago Farms in the nation's Chukut Kuk District.
TOCA is not a tribal or government program, but an independent nonprofit funded mainly by grants. Established 17 years ago, its goals are all-encompassing, from reconnecting youth with native customs and tribal elders to helping to establish an on-reservation food economy. The internship program pays apprentices $18,000 a year, nearly twice the average per-capita income on the reservation. That compares with $25,477 for Pima County.
On his family's farm, Noland Johnson and his apprentices erect temporary dams and divert streams to make use of available rainwater. They pump from ponds and direct floodwaters into fields, carefully dug so water spreads across the entire field instead of pooling at one end.
Traditional crops like "60-day" corn (which reaches maturity in just two months) and tepary beans are well-adapted to desert conditions. But the farm has expanded into nontraditional crops like beets, tomatoes, bok choy and peas, so irrigation is crucial.
TOCA's efforts include the young farmers' apprenticeship program, a farm-to-school lunch program at Baboquivari High School, a community garden at Sells Hospital and a nascent farmers market the community is slowly embracing.
The group also runs Desert Rain Cafe in Sells. The restaurant uses traditional foods from the local farms, and wild fruit foraged by tribe members, to make healthy meals, including tepary bean quesadillas and cholla fruit salad.
TOCA has even launched a youth program, Project Oidag, to get middle- and high-school kids interested in agriculture. In the first year, only 10 kids applied for eight positions; last year, close to 30 applied.
Across the country, American Indian nations are looking to diversify beyond casinos.
"Because of the potential for nearly immediate economic impact, a lot of Indian country policy has been diverted toward gaming," said Zach Ducheneaux of the Intertribal Agricultural Council in Billings, Mont. The group's premise is that agriculture can improve American Indian life.
Gaming, oil and gas development and more recently, payday lending have monopolized the discussion on tribal financial empowerment, Ducheneaux said.
"The last time Indian country was truly self-sufficient and sovereign, they were feeding themselves. Until we realize there was some economic benefit to that ... we are gonna continue to spin our wheels in these other areas, and it won't be as meaningful," he said.
Nearly 80,000 farms, 2 percent of the nation's total, are operated by American Indians, census data show. Arizona has the highest percentage of farms with American Indians as the principal farm operator.
TOCA's leaders see food equity issues as a gateway to pervasive social and economic woes like poverty, obesity and cultural disconnection.
"The problems are huge, but you have to start somewhere," says Nina Altshul, executive program director for TOCA. "Farming is not necessarily a solution to everything. For us, it was a way to address all the things we wanted to address."
During a recent "Youth Agricultural Day," sponsored by TOCA and the San Xavier Cooperative Farm, 81-year-old Roseanna Carlyle recalls growing up on the land that is now home to the farm cooperative.
"We didn't have to buy anything. We worked the farms all the time," she says during a panel discussion featuring Tohono O'odham elders and youth. "I liked it because we'd just go out and get a melon or chile or tomatoes. There was a lot of water then."
But World Wars I and II took many families away from their vegetable fields, as men were drawn into the fight and women to the cotton fields or other commodity crop farms. Many of that generation's children were recruited to boarding schools, part of the controversial effort by the U.S. government to "assimilate" American Indian children into a cash-based economy.
Additionally, the population boom in Tucson and Phoenix resulted in a drastic reduction of the underground water table, drying up rivers that had sustained indigenous farmers.
An entire generation lost its connection to the farm. Bringing back traditional farming - including harvest and planting songs, and rain prayers - gives root to more than crops.
"It all boils down to identity. If you have that internal compass, you can make that decision to stay with school, stay with a job, stay on track," Terrol Johnson says. "I always tell people, 'You're not just looking at a tepary bean. You're looking at a whole culture.'"
Contact reporter Emily Bregel at email@example.com or 807-7774. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel.