Native American agriculture looks to build on the gains of the 2018 Farm Bill
In the inaugural State of Native Agriculture Address, Native American ag leaders talked about gains made in improving tribal agriculture and its relationship to USDA, as well as work yet to be done.
Speakers at the inaugural State of Native Agriculture Address said the 2018 Farm Bill made historic gains for tribal agriculture, and leaders are looking for more gains in the upcoming 2023 bill.
Organized by the Native American Agriculture Fund , or NAAF, speakers from tribal groups, Native American coalitions and the federal government outlined the current state of tribal agriculture and highlighted ways tribes are improving economies, feeding their own people and building for the future. The online event, streamed on YouTube, was held Thursday, March 9.
NAAF was created by the settlement of the Keepseagle v. Vilsack class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for historic discriminatory practices by the department. Now the largest philanthropic organization devoted solely to serving the Native American farming and ranching community, NAAF provides grants to eligible organizations for business assistance, agricultural education, technical support and advocacy services.
Many of the speeches discussed how NAAF and cooperating organizations, along with USDA, have been working to overcome the problems of the past and make access to financing and capital more readily available, as well as to amplify voices from Indian Country to make programs more workable and equitable.
Speaking at the address were Toni Stanger-McLaughlin, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund and a USDA Equity Commission member, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, both Democrats from Minnesota who serve on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux, Cole Miller, vice-chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and co-chair of the Native Farm Bill Coalition, and Kari Jo Lawrence, executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, co-chair of the Native Farm Bill Coalition, and a USDA Equity Commission Agriculture Subcommittee member.
Interspersed with the speakers were presentations about ag and food projects and organizations in Indian Country.
Stanger-McLaughlin said working toward the next farm bill is essential to "create new opportunities" for tribal communities that often have not had the same access to programs that other rural communities have. The farm bill conversations come during a period in which she said 49% of American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced food insecurity.
"This moment is critical," she said.
She spoke of the advancement of tribal food hubs, distribution and marketing, and programming centers that are working toward helping improve agriculture and food access on reservations, as well as the work being done to expand credit to Native American farmers and ranchers. Diversifying agriculture in tribal communities using culturally relevant practices is vital, she indicated.
"This is the future of agriculture," Stanger-McLaughlin said. "This is Native agriculture in action."
Vilsack said it was an honor to speak at the event and to work on solutions to problems that predated his stints at the USDA, when the federal government was "historically less than supportive." He noted programs from the department aimed at boosting not just agriculture within tribal communities but also communication between the federal government and tribal nations. Native American agriculture has been at the forefront of addressing climate problems, he said, and he noted lessons that could be learned from tribes like the Hopi, who farm in the desert with limited water resources. He also said he was proud of the number of Native American officials within the current USDA.
"We all agree the state of Native agriculture is strong," Vilsack said.
Smith and Klobuchar spoke about the importance of Native American voices in crafting the farm bill and how much more needs to be done.
"You know best how to make native agriculture thrive," Smith said.
Klobuchar addressed the continuing barriers that Native American farmers and ranchers face in things like obtaining credit and in rural development, like getting broadband to tribal communities.
"We can't afford to let these barriers stand in the way of the critical work that our tribal farmers and ranchers do," she said.
Ducheneaux, a former tribal council representative for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe , said serving in the USDA and changing how USDA and Indian Country relate to each other "will be one of the great honors of my life." Prior to his appointment to work at FSA, Ducheneaux was the executive director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, and he spoke at length of the work done there and through NAAF to make connections and build opportunities.
Ducheneaux said the way USDA has begun to work with tribal nations involves more collaboration while policies are crafted rather than a top-down approach after the fact, and it more closely mirrors traditional ways.
"We operated in councils, and we shared perspective, and we had discussion, and we chose a path together," he said.
The USDA continues to work on righting the wrongs of the past, including discriminatory lending practices, and implement programs that have helped distressed borrowers of all races, Ducheneaux said.
Miller and Lawrence discussed the work being done by the Native Farm Bill Coalition to come up with priorities for the farm bill. Miller said the coalition has more than 150 policy goals they are advocating for inclusion in the upcoming farm bill. They are hosting fly-ins to talk to Congress and make their voices heard.
Lawrence said the problems facing tribal agriculture are "neither new nor unknown," but what has changed is the support the sector receives.
"There is no shortage of interest in tribal agriculture," she said.