Farm Bill Funding for Indigenous Food Producers Needs a Boost | Civil Eats

Farm Bill Funding for Indigenous Food Producers Needs a Boost

Skya Ducheneaux, a lender focused on growing Native food businesses, explains why unequal funding opportunities are harming Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Spring Alaska Schreiner, owner and principal ecologist at Sakari Farms, reaches down to lift a planting and its root systems inside one of six smaller greenhouses. (Photo courtesy of Sakari Farms)

Spring Alaska Schreiner, owner and principal ecologist at Sakari Farms, reaches down to lift a planting and its root systems inside one of six smaller greenhouses. (Photo courtesy of Sakari Farms)

This is the third installment of our new series, Faces of the Farm Bill, where we humanize the real-world impacts of ag policy.

The daughter of a South Dakota cattle rancher, Skya Ducheneaux spent her childhood in the family business on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. She left that lifestyle behind and pursued a degree in business administration from Black Hills State University while living between Spearfish and Rapid City—until she was called back home to the family ranch.

In 2019, Ducheneaux founded Akiptan, a certified community development financial institution, or CDFI, based in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. While CDFIs are designed to serve the broad financial needs of historically underserved communities, some, like Akiptan, play a pivotal role in the agricultural landscape, providing much-needed financial and technical support to food producers.

While there are over 1,400 CDFIs in the U.S., Akiptan is one of only 65 that are focused on serving Native Americans. It has distributed more than $16 million in capital through almost 240 loans across 24 nations for projects over the last three years—including Morning Light Kombucha, a company focused on sustainable practices in Kansas, and Sakari Farms, an operation that specializes in growing first foods and expanding research-based tribal seed production in Oregon—and its work is just getting started.

Akiptan’s 2022 market study determined that nearly three-quarters of the farmers they spoke to needed additional capital to purchase new equipment or infrastructure, but most don’t have access to CDFI loans, which accounted for only 9 percent of all the capital they raised.

The Native CDFI Network found that 86 percent of Indigenous communities lacked a single financial institution to access loans or capital within their borders. One of the network’s 2023 Policy Priorities focuses on increasing the flow of capital and subsidies to farmers and ranchers through the farm bill. The hope is to create a CDFI pilot program.

The “2022 Gaining Ground Report,” authored by the Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC), is also advocating for “creative flexibilities” that would enable Native CDFIs to “expand their agricultural lending and provide those key lines of credit that improve Native food economies and support rural America.”

Akiptan was one of three lenders named as a part of the Farm Service Agency’s Heirs’ Property Relending Program last August. Authorized as a 2018 Farm Bill provision, the program strives to address entrenched agricultural inequities by targeting the status of fractionated lands among Black and Indigenous farmers.

Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a relative of Skya’s who helped her create Akiptan, told Civil Eats that “there isn’t enough funding in the CDFI sector, let alone the Native CDFI sector, that is structured like an investment that really lets the money go out there to work.”

Skya Ducheneaux spoke with Civil Eats recently about Akiptan, her hopes for the 2023 Farm Bill, and the importance of funding for Native American food producers.

How did your childhood on the ranch inspire you to get involved in agriculture?

My dad ranched with his dad, who ranched with his dad. Everybody in my family was expected to help. And even though I’m a girl, my dad very much raised me so that I can do the same thing as every man in my life. I was out there all day with him—from sunup to sundown, before school and after school. It’s tough; ranching is hard work.

Akiptan founder Skya Ducheneaux. (Photo courtesy of Akiptan)

Skya Ducheneaux. (Photo courtesy of Akiptan)

I was chasing cows, pulling calves, fixing tractors. Then, when I turned 18, I never wanted to work that hard again. I said, “I’m going to get a business degree. It’s getting me off the ranch, out of the hay field.” I went to college and I started missing agriculture, never the work but the good-natured, honest people.

After I graduated, I wanted to move back home, which is funny because just a few years prior I couldn’t get far enough away. The Intertribal Agriculture Council caught wind of the fact that I was trying to move home and they offered me a position to start this CDFI.

I didn’t know what a CDFI was, so there was a huge learning curve, but I haven’t looked back. And I’m a fair-weather cowgirl these days.

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Can you briefly describe Akiptan’s growth over the last few years?

We began lending and did $1.8 million in new loans that very first year. By 2022, we did just under $10 million in new loans, and closed $3 million to $4 million in loans so far this year.

Oftentimes, you see Native CDFI growth is slower because of the lack of access to resources and disinvestment, so the fact that we were growing like this with a record year was amazing. We hired two loan officers this winter and we need like three more. It’s absolutely crazy.

How do you stay sustainable while continuing to offer financial and technical services?

I spend a lot of time fundraising, and even with that, it’s still just never enough, which means needs are going unmet out there. Our market study indicates that each producer has $539,000 of unmet need, on average. If you extrapolate that to all 80,000 Native agriculture producers, it’s $43 billion.

Most of that unmet need is land, buying out fractionated interests. Infrastructure, equipment, livestock, there’s so much need, and we’re [only] seeing a drop in the bucket of that $43 billion.

Our interest rates are still really low. We also practice patient capital, which means our loan terms are longer than what you would see at a bank. It gives our producers healthy cash flows and makes sure they’re able to not only have a business that can stand on its own, but a good quality of life.

All of our loans are paired with technical assistance, and we really meet the producer where they’re at. We’ll also do up to five years interest-only, which allows producers who have room to grow upfront at accelerated capacity growth. We’ve seen producers take all their profits and reinvest it back in themselves and absolutely kick butt.

Loans from FNDI organization Akiptan allowed Sakari Farms to purchase and erect seven 100-foot greenhouses in Bend, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Sakari Farms)

Loans from Akiptan allowed Sakari Farms to purchase and erect seven 100-foot greenhouses in Bend, Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Sakari Farms)

We try to take a partnership approach with them, which is where Akiptan comes from—it’s the Lakota word for doing something together in a joint effort. We are intentionally building relationships with our producers. We do quarterly check-ins with them just to make sure that they don’t have any budgeting or tax questions for us. Basically, we focus on the relational side just as much as the transactional side.

Do you think your recent market study reflects an inequity in lending services?

Traditional lenders are focused on credit risk. If you don’t have a strong balance sheet for them to fall back on, they won’t extend credit—or they will, but it’s not at terms that are beneficial to the producer. Without somebody giving you a loan and taking a chance on your business, having to start from scratch with no support is so hard.

That’s what so many of our producers are doing because of that disinvestment, because there’s a lot of distrust in Indian Country and financial institutions. You feel like you’re not being heard or understood, you’re not being valued.

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(That systemic discrimination) stunts the economic development on reservations, and agriculture is such an underutilized economic driver. They get funding that keeps them surviving and never thriving, but if we have proper investments, agriculture can easily surpass gaming because we are such great producers in Indian Country.

The 2018 Farm Bill brought unprecedented resources to Indian Country thanks in part to the Native Farm Bill Coalition’s work. How that has been panning out for Native farmers—within the finance world and beyond?

The NFBC is a team of absolute rock stars. I believe they got 63 provisions in their first round of advocacy with the 2018 Farm Bill, lots around tribal parity and pilot programs. Their report “Gaining Ground” goes through all of their previous work and upcoming priorities. We saw improvements in Farm Service Agency programs in regards to loan limits, for example. [NFBC] has tons of recommendations for new opportunities in the Farm Bill, and we fully support them in their work.

How has Akiptan been involved with this farm bill and what are you hoping to see this time around?

We’ve been to D.C. a couple times this year, helping the Native Farm Bill Coalition by telling our story and advocating in that way. We’ve been meeting with the offices of U.S. representatives and senators, making sure those policymakers know the realities on the ground.

That’s our part of the farm bill, lifting up the Native Farm Bill Coalition’s recommendations for CDFIs, which we fully support. You’ve got a space at the table with something as big as the farm bill, and you can share your stories and the statistics.

We need to advocate for programs that would help CDFIs with ag lending at the national level. I see a lot of hope and desire and almost like an “enough is enough” attitude [from people struggling to get loans].

A lot of my family is involved in agriculture, and I’ve heard them cussing about their bankers for years. The culture that I wanted to create wasn’t one like that—I didn’t want to be getting cussed about every day.

We want to keep our boots dirty with our producers. We are going to feed and pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. There’s a lot of innovation, a lot of hope, a lot of desire, wanting to do better, wanting to break those generational cycles, and wanting to make a better world for Indian Country.

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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