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Native American agricultural leaders detail farm bill priorities at U.S. Senate hearing


Native American agricultural leaders detail farm bill priorities at U.S. Senate hearing

Mar 24, 2023 | 11:49 am ET
By Adam Goldstein
Native American agricultural leaders detail farm bill priorities at U.S. Senate hearing
Native American agricultural leaders are seeking an expansion of tribes’ jurisdiction over U.S. Department of Agriculture programs in the upcoming farm bill. (Stock photo via Canva)

WASHINGTON — A roundtable of Native American agricultural leaders at a recent U.S. Senate hearing lobbied for increased sovereignty and social justice in the coming farm bill by expanding tribes’ jurisdiction over U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.

It’s called “638” authority and refers to Public Law 93-638, which gives tribes the power to manage certain federal programs that benefit their communities. The authority is administered via contracts and compacts, and has been used to delegate control of health care and infrastructure services to Native peoples in past years.

It has more recently been applied to Native nutrition and wildfire management through two USDA pilot programs, created in the 2018 farm bill. 

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the 2018 farm bill was the first in which Native communities “had a meaningful seat at the table.”

Schatz said the point of the March 22 hearing was to generate a set of consolidated, bipartisan recommendations to be submitted to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry by the end of March.

“The 2018 farm bill broke barriers, but more work needs to be done,” Schatz said. “The next farm bill is another opportunity for us to collaborate and build on this incredible progress, and to further advance federal agricultural policy that includes Native priorities.”

The Indigenous leaders also talked about investing in on-reservation USDA work training initiatives and regional meat processing, along with increasing access to credit and federal farm programs.

The farm bill is a multiyear omnibus spending law which authorizes an array of agricultural and food programs, including federal crop insurance, food stamp benefits and farm resource conservation.

The roughly $500 billion bill is renewed close to every five years, and includes mandatory spending that must be in line with previous farm bills.

Food program said to be effective

Senate committee members and speakers touted the effectiveness of the USDA’s Self Determination Demonstration Project, a 638 pilot program which allowed tribes to substitute parts of USDA nutrition plans for Native-procured foods. The project was set up through the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations in the 2018 farm bill.

Participants in the first round of the program included eight tribes across Alaska, Michigan, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Washington and Wisconsin. Another round of funding for tribal nutrition projects is expected to be announced this summer. 

Mary Greene Trottier, president of the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations, said the Self Determination Demonstration Project has been a “success story,” especially amid high demand for food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She added that the program created training opportunities to teach Native seniors how to preserve their foods through “brutal” winters.

Madeline Soboleff Levy, general counsel for the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said the program has helped the Tlingit and Haida tribes expand distribution of culturally significant foods like Tlingit potatoes and seal.

Other panelists advocated for the expansion of 638 applicability to all USDA nutrition, forestry and food safety inspection programs.

Trenton Kissee, the director of agriculture and natural resources for Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, said the Intertribal Agriculture Council hopes to see an expansion of 638 contracts to all USDA programs and offices. He emphasized the prospects of expanding these contracts to Food Safety and Inspection Services, given a lack of regional access to food inspectors.

In response to a question from Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Vincent Cowboy, the chief operations officer for the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry in New Mexico, said USDA inspectors have limited experience with Native crops like blue cornmeal and sumac berries.

Cowboy added that inspection fees and a lack of access to USDA employees have been a barrier for the Navajo tribe’s domestic sales over the past six years.

Ryan Lankford of Island Mountain Development Group in Montana said tribal colleges and the Federally-Recognized Tribes Extension Program represent great opportunities for integrating USDA work training programs, especially for food inspection and meat processing.

Kissee added that establishing a tribal self-governance office in the agency could help oversee a successful expansion of the 638 program, given a lack of clarity over what services can be contracted out.

“I think if there was a touch point there,” Kissee said, “that would go a long way in effecting that change.”

Limited access to credit, programs 

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota asked Lankford about Native access to lines of credit and risk management being complicated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, given that a lot of Native agricultural land is held in trust by the Department of the Interior.

Given that banks will not make loans using tribal operating land or equipment as collateral, Lankford said, a robust crop insurance program with high baseline subsidies remains a priority for Native farmers. Some banks will account for their insurance plans as a collateral asset on loans.

Dustin Schmidt, a South Dakota farmer and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said there is limited tribal enrollment in risk management programs due to the cost of participating.

He added that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric drought monitor, which many programs base their payouts upon, is a “huge problem” for the functionality of these programs.

“We’ve been in a severe drought for two years, and we haven’t had any according to our drought monitor,” Schmidt said. “In order to enroll into those programs, we’ve got to get that fixed.”

Kelsey Scott, director of programs at the Intertribal Agriculture Council, said it is important to note that banks can collateralize tribal land and equipment, but will not do so.

“I think that we could really reflect on the fact that the historical under-service and lack of access to USDA programs has helped to perpetuate that void of wealth in many of these communities,” Scott said.

She pointed to the “great job” that Native community development financial institutions are doing to fill this gap, and the need to develop Native-specific risk management infrastructure.

Lankford and other producers also spoke to the need to get Native producers on trade missions abroad.

“That’s key to being sovereign, is that we can expand and reach out for ourselves,” Lankford said.