Native Farmers Push for More Equitable Training and Support in the Farm Bill | Civil Eats

Native Farmers Push for More Equitable Training and Support in the Farm Bill

Expanding the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) could level the playing field for Indigenous food producers as they address climate change and food sovereignty.

Nakai Clearwater Northup stands behind three traditional ethnobotany gardens, which he manages at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. At one time, his people solely relied on them to maintain their cultural connections to food before the founding of Meechooôk Farm. (Photo by Gabriel Pietrorazio)

Nakai Clearwater Northup stands behind three traditional ethnobotany gardens, which he manages at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. At one time, his people solely relied on them to maintain their cultural connections to food before the founding of Meechooôk Farm. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

Strawberries “kick off summer for us,” says Nakai Clearwater Northup of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. The berries ripen in late June along the coastal shores of Connecticut, where the Pequots have long made their home.

Also known as wuttahmineash in the Algonquian language, the strawberry is a natural gift from the Creator to heal relationships, says Northup, the manager of outreach and public programs at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. According to that ritual, rooted in the origin story of Turtle Island, disagreements are settled when two people exchange berries, each taking a bite while dancing underneath the glowing light of a full moon.

In recent years, Pequots have hosted Strawberry Thanksgiving, a seasonal celebration that had gone dormant for years as the tribe lost touch with its agricultural roots. Now, it’s one of several traditional ceremonies that have been revitalized with the founding of the Nation’s new 600-acre Meechooôk Farm, which employs four full-time employees and a farm manager. Blueberries, maple syrup, and sweet corn are merely a handful of New England foods whose celebrations correlate with their traditional 13-moon calendar observances.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Meechooôk Farm, created with support from the University of Connecticut’s extension college, is nestled deep within a leafy forest in the Eastern woodlands along a dirt service road in North Stonington. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s Meechooôk Farm, created with support from the University of Connecticut’s extension college, is nestled deep within a leafy forest in the Eastern woodlands along a dirt service road in North Stonington. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Northup. “There has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work.”

This recent renaissance of traditional food production emerged from a partnership with the University of Connecticut’s Extension at the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, one of many agricultural extension programs across the country designed to help provide farmers with the latest research, technology, and training.

The national Cooperative Extension Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has established a presence in virtually every county, with more than 3,000 programs and an estimated 15,000 employees. But tribal communities haven’t traditionally had the same access to extension services that non-Native farmers and ranchers have.

The USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the agency behind the nation’s extension services, has been financially backing UConn’s support for the Mashantucket Pequot through the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP)—since getting its initial grant approved in 2017. And this year, NIFA agreed to continue offering support for an additional four years, but that decision was anything but guaranteed.

Although there are several success stories of Native communities partnering with land-grant universities both in and out of Indian Country, not all tribes have been so lucky. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation is one of only 35 programs nationwide that receive a total of $3 million of competitive grant funding through FRTEP. Other projects include a youth program serving the 31 tribes living in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a dry farming project on the Hopi reservation in Arizona, and cattle ranching program on the Seminole Reservation in Florida.

Aside from fresh produce, the Mashantucket Pequot are also managing livestock, including pigs. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)The Mashantucket Sugar Shack commercially produces maple syrup on their reservation, steadily selling and supplying bottles to the Foxwoods Resort Casino. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation’s interests include hydroponic tomato greenhouses (left), livestock, including pigs (middle), and maple syrup, produced by the Mashantucket Sugar Shack (right). (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

Now, tribal agriculture advocates are working together to propose a massive expansion of the program in the upcoming farm bill. Some hope it will level the playing field for Indigenous food producers, more equitably funding tribal communities striving to respond to and prepare for the impacts of the climate crisis while also improving food sovereignty and nutrition security.

And if Congress approves their request, it could mean that many more tribes will have access to the foods that—like strawberries in Connecticut—bind their members much deeper to their cultures.

“Beyond the food to eat, it’s their culture. It’s everything for them,” says Shuresh Ghimire, the University of Connecticut’s assistant extension educator, who acts as a liaison between UConn and Meechooôk Farm. “It’s not just about production and money. It’s also trying to promote the use of their language through the grant.”

‘We Historically Have Been Shut Out of These Conversations’

Last January, 16 farmers, agriculture professors, and extension agents—many of whom have worked with both former and current FRTEP recipients—came together to form the Indian Country Extension Commission in part to assess the state of FRTEP. The group issued a report calling for a $30 million funding increase for the program, or 10 times the current allocation, among other congressional recommendations.

“The $30 million . . . will increase the total number of FRTEP agents: 90 new agents added to the current 35, as well as the addition of 27 new regional specialists with expertise in areas such as water, range, animal science, forestry, youth, Native foods, and Native languages,” reads the May report.

“We historically have been shut out of these conversations and are having to play catch up in a way that other communities in America haven’t had to,” says Lexie Holden, associate director of policy and government relations at the Intertribal Agriculture Council.

An enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Holden previously worked as a policy fellow at the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF), where she authored a field report specifically focused on FRTEP in 2021 that predated the creation of the new commission. In it she wrote, “The Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program is not a perfect program, but it is necessary and it, like the people it serves, deserves parity.”

Only 13 percent of all federally recognized tribes in Indian Country benefit from FRTEP and the 1994 Extension, which includes tribal universities and colleges. And compared to the $3 million that goes to support Native food producers, the Cooperative Extension Service receives roughly $300 million annually.

FRTEP was born out of the 1990 Farm Bill. Even that provision was flawed, dispersing only a tenth of the $10 million earmarked by Congress.

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“The whole reason it was created was because the traditional extension system wasn’t serving us and it wasn’t suited to the unique needs of Indian Country,” says Holden.

The commission sees Indigenous farmers and ranchers falling short in accessing extension services due to systemic disadvantages rooted in history. Their recommendations aim to correct structural and financial inequities that have persisted for decades.

Dozens of land-grant universities are scattered across the United States, institutions which receive funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food Agriculture. (Image credit: NIFA)

Dozens of land-grant universities are scattered across the United States, institutions which receive funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food Agriculture. (Image credit: NIFA)

Land-Grant Universities, Boss Farmers, and Early Extension

The establishment of land-grant universities, made possible by the Morrill Act of 1862, opened up opportunities for those aspiring to pursue careers in “agriculture and the mechanic arts” who had been excluded from higher education. But the funds the government used to create them came from selling more than 10 million acres of expropriated tribal lands.

Doug Steele, vice president of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, doesn’t shy away from that history.

“We have encouraged all of the land-grant universities to understand where that initial land acquisition came from to establish their universities,” says Steele, “in appreciation of what we should be doing today.” He points to the organization’s current land acknowledgment, which explicitly names that land theft.

In the early 20th century, the Dawes Act parceled tribal lands into individual plots and gave them to Indigenous peoples in an attempt to undo the reservation system, granting each family 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. Still, allotted lands were often unsuitable for agriculture, and the effort imposed a culture of farming and ranching onto nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, says Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

Leon Calico, president Indian Potato Growers’ Association, was at one time the largest Indigenous potato grower on the Idaho Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Reservation and gained support from early extension services, which was highlighted in the 1932 annual report. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Leon Calico, president Indian Potato Growers’ Association, was at one time the largest Indigenous potato grower on the Idaho Shoshone-Bannock Tribes’ Fort Hall Reservation and gained support from early extension services, which was highlighted in the 1932 annual report. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

“You had 160 acres that you were supposed to stay on; that just didn’t work,” says Stainbrook, who also sat on the Indian Country Extension Commission. “They put these folks out there called boss farmers to train Indigenous people to be farmers and ranchers. They were the early extension agents for Indian Country.”

The idea of boss farmers came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), says Joe Hiller, co-chair of the commission and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. No more than two agents were employed by any reservation agency. Hiller’s father was a boss farmer on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota after the Second World War. He reported to the BIA superintendent, and was tasked with hiring, firing, and training Indigenous producers—separate from South Dakota State University, a land-grant university founded in 1881.

Some boss farmers became contract employees at the land-grant universities, says Trent Teegerstrom, associate director for tribal extension programs at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“When those contracts ended, the universities didn’t have any funds, so the jobs went away,” according to Teegerstrom, who also co-chaired the Indian Country Extension Commission.

Lucy Johnson, “a full-blood Indian,” led a turkey rearing and feeding project under the supervision of early extension agents. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

“Lucy Johnson, ‘a full-blood Indian,’ led a turkey rearing and feeding project under the supervision of early extension agents.” (Courtesy of the National Archives)

Extension agents were eventually phased out and replaced by welfare workers as the BIA began prioritizing social services instead of resource management programs toward the end of the 1950s.

“Then there was this weird thought that the county extension agents were going to supply the tribes with those services under the regular extension program,” Stainbrook says.

The presumption was that the Cooperative Extension Service, although controlled by predominantly white county commissioners, would offer the same treatment to Indigenous farmers. Unsurprisingly, that did not come to pass.

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“Our producers weren’t able to access those extension agents, whether it was outright discrimination because of our ZIP codes, names, or tribal affiliations,” says Holden. They were “unable to use services that were directly funded by land-grant institutions, many of which got land that was either seized or sold.”

These extension agents were also ill-equipped to address Indigenous producers and their complicated problems, lacking knowledge of traditional food systems. Indian Country was essentially left on its own to deal with the agricultural hardships incurred by federal anti-Indian policies.

Then, in 1990, Congress agreed to fund the first-ever FRTEP provision, initially called the Extension Indian Reservation Program. But the program has been chronically underfunded, without accounting for decades worth of inflation, a fact that has left tribes competing for limited resources.

Fighting for an Equitable Future in the Next Farm Bill

In addition to increasing financial resources for tribal extension services, the Indian Country Extension Commission wants to do away with FRTEP’s current competitive four-year grant model. In its report, it requested that the USDA: “Eliminate the competitive nature of the FRTEP funding and instead use permanent funding similar to County Extension programs.” The current FRTEP programs would be grandfathered in and a host of new extension agents would be added throughout the country.

“Native Americans were not getting equal access to services from USDA.”

“[Competition] is the absolute worst impediment to these programs,” says Stainbrook. “You’re out there competing with your colleagues, basically.”

Thirty-six FRTEP applications were filed in the last grant cycle in 2017, all of which were approved, according to a NIFA public affairs specialist. But that funding isn’t guaranteed each cycle. Land-grant universities, including the 1994 tribal colleges, are both eligible and vying for the same money, potentially knocking other applicants out of the candidate pool to their fund agents.

“[FRTEP agents] are an incredible resource,” says Sarah Vogel. “If their efforts could be replicated and adequately funded across the U.S., it would be such a remarkable boost for Native American producers and great food for the rest of us.”

Vogel was an appointee to the Indian Country Extension Commission because of her background defending the rights of Native farmers as a part of the North Dakota Nine amid a groundbreaking federal class-action lawsuit, which she wrote about in her recent memoir, The Farmer’s Lawyer.

She says, “Native Americans were not getting equal access to services from USDA,” and sees a similar pattern of inequality in FRTEP. Vogel was reminded of that when her colleagues at the Council for Native American Farmers and Ranchers repeatedly sought to fix the tribal extension program decades ago.

“I think it’s getting to be a critical mass of awareness, knowledge, and advocacy. The equity commission is one part of it,” says Vogel, pointing to NAAF and the Native Farm Bill Coalition as reasons behind FRTEP’s rising prominence in the national ag-policy discourse.

Representation plays an undeniably important part in the negotiation process on Capitol Hill. Although 29 states are home to federally recognized tribes, FRTEP touches only 18 of them.

“I would argue forcefully that promises of agricultural programs were a clear treaty and trust obligation voluntarily assumed by the federal government.”

“We need to have some congressional champions that will say this is a very high priority,” Steele says. “One of the issues is that Indian Country has never had a very loud and unified national voice.”

And key lawmakers do appear to be paying attention in the nation’s capital.

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“Over time, certain administrative decisions by the Department of Agriculture have made the [FRTEP] program less accessible to those it is intended to serve,” Representative David Scott (D-Georgia) tells Civil Eats in a statement. “The funding available through the appropriations process has also stayed fairly stagnant.”

As chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Scott says he has seen the benefits of FRTEP, particularly for Native youth. Scott says he is committed to “working toward solutions to rectify the challenges that have arisen” by ensuring that extension outreach and programming are “on-par” for tribal reservations, states, and counties.

His ranking Republican colleague, Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, tells Civil Eats that he’s ready to start “working and identifying ways to improve the program to ensure producers in every corner of every state are being reached.”

Indeed, advocates say that Congress actualizing its commitment to tribal extension services through the farm bill would be in line with upholding the existing treaties between the federal government and tribal communities.

David Wilkins, who specializes in U.S. treaty law as a professor at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies, has searched a database of the roughly 375 ratified treaties. Thirty-six explicitly reference agriculture-related language between 1805 and 1868 alone, Wilkins says, in varying ways from “giving instructions in agriculture” to even paying for “improvements.” Other treaties mentioned hiring staff, like the boss farmers and early extension agents.

“I would argue forcefully that promises of agricultural programs were a clear treaty and trust obligation voluntarily assumed by the federal government,” says Wilkins. And yet, after spending years reading through the agricultural promises, Wilkins adds that “federal lawmakers have long desired that Native folk become yeoman farmers, operating under the wrongful assumption that most Native nations knew nothing about agriculture.”

This misperception persists, when in fact advocates say the problem has been the systematic denial of the adequate land and resources to produce one’s own food.

“They’ve never gotten the funding they were promised,” Holden says. “It’s a matter of treating people more equitably.”

Gabriel Pietrorazio is an award-winning journalist who closely covers Indigenous affairs, food and agriculture, politics, as well as crime and justice. He earned a master’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2021. Read more >

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