This Indigenous 4-H Officer Wants to See More Farm Bill Funding for Her Community | Civil Eats

This Indigenous 4-H Officer Wants to See More Farm Bill Funding for Her Community

With resources stretched thin, some reservations receive little or no support for farmers, food producers, nutrition programs, or youth development. Kristy Kinlicheenie wants to see more funds go to the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP).

Kristy Kinlicheenie standing outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture's headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

Kristy Kinlicheenie standing outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Gabriel Pietrorazio)

This is the latest installment of our series Faces of the Farm Bill, wherein we set out to humanize the real-world impacts of ag policy.

For the last seven years, Kristy Kinlicheenie has worked as a 4-H extension assistant at the University of Arizona’s Apache Cooperative Extension in the city of St. Johns. That’s roughly 100 miles south of Window Rock, where Kinlicheenie grew up on the Navajo Nation.

It’s not uncommon for the county offices serving tribal communities to be located far from their tribal lands, which creates challenges and inequities with “a huge disconnect there with what services they can provide,” according to Kinlicheenie.

These geographic barriers drawn by jurisdictional boundaries create confusion and hurdles for local counties, neighboring states, and federally recognized tribes. Those challenges extend to the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP), a research-driven service that provides outreach and support to Indigenous farmers and ranchers on their reservations, bypassing long-standing county extension offices.

Although Arizona is home to a fifth of all FRTEP agents nationwide, less than a third of the state’s 22 federally recognized tribal communities receive support from tribal extension services.

That leaves the other two-thirds of Arizona tribes without any support clamoring for dedicated FRTEP agents, according to Trent Teegerstrom, associate director for tribal extension programs at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “If I try to get one for you, I have to take it away from somebody [else].”

Fraught with decades of inequity, the Native Farm Bill Coalition is trying to fix FRTEP and its problematic grant funding model in the upcoming farm bill. The group’s “Gaining Ground” report outlines key recommendations, including raising annual funding, which would allow the research program to reach 100 reservations or more in the next four years.

Kinlicheenie, 32, specializes in 4-H youth programming through county extension for Apache County and helped found the Navajo Nation 4-H Program, but she regularly collaborates with the seven FRTEP agents scattered across six tribal communities in Arizona. Although she isn’t directly funded by that program, she has seen firsthand the challenges FRTEP agents face while trying to serve the state’s tribal communities.

Kinlicheenie spoke with Civil Eats about the Cooperative Extension System, her hopes for the 2023 Farm Bill, and the importance of funding FRTEP agents who are embedded within reservations throughout Indian Country.

Tribal youth win awards at the 2022 Arizona 4-H State Horse Show held at the Navajo County Fairgrounds in Holbrook. (Courtesy of Kristy Kinilicheenie)

Tribal youth win awards at the 2022 Arizona 4-H State Horse Show held at the Navajo County Fairgrounds in Holbrook. (Courtesy of Kristy Kinlicheenie)

How did you end up at the Apache County Extension office?

My mom and dad were ranchers. They instilled the love of horses and livestock in me. I didn’t know what, but I wanted to be somebody in agriculture as I got older. The first thing that came to me is that I wanted to be a doctor for horses and animals.

While growing up, I volunteered at the Navajo Nation Veterinary Clinic at Window Rock. I built those relationships so that when I graduated from Navajo Technical University and Colorado State University, they had a position to work on a mobile unit. My summers were spent traveling, working with different doctors from all over the Nation getting dogs and cats spayed and neutered.

I did that until I saw the job with the University of Arizona. I didn’t have any background with 4-H or county extension, but I loved teaching kids and sharing knowledge. I’m an educator at heart.

How did you handle any personal or cultural transitions into county extension?

I did an internship with the USDA National Diagnostic Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, and that was the first time I was away from my community. I was a born-and-raised rez kid. I had a huge culture shock. I learned that how we perceive our community, our home, even our family dynamics are totally different from how the outside world does.

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It was difficult to navigate, but I think that really helped me with my position here because Apache County is predominantly white. I understood the importance of the language, how to teach these kids and talk to their parents. I already had that inside knowledge, so when I came aboard with the county, it really helped.

It broke down those barriers, [because] historically extension agents and extension offices were a hand of colonization in the beginning. When they hear “county agents” and it’s a white man coming to their community, there’s still that historical uneasiness.

We don't have a connection with our county office. When you are in the midst of it, you can see there’s a clear divide unfortunately, and I’m sure it’s not intentional. It’s the way things have always been, and we just haven’t been able to bridge that gap yet. That's why I’m here to help.

How segregated is county extension from FRTEP?

Even though I’m with Apache County, my director is very supportive of me servicing who needs to be served on the Navajo Nation. My relationship is really great because FRTEP supports me; they’ll help fund different projects that I’m doing.

We just did a drone workshop a couple of weeks ago that was sponsored by the Native American Agriculture Fund, and had a professor come up from the University of Arizona. He presented to kids and community members about the different types of drones they can use in agriculture or business, so I do have programs that I can utilize through FRTEP to get more programs done that the county wouldn’t otherwise be able to fund. The county only funds my travel, but FRTEP funds my programming because I am on the Nation.

It’s not just the Navajo Nation. We work with an enterprise called the Southwest Indian Agriculture Association. They’re having a conference at the end of June in the White Mountain Apache Tribe area. They really like what we do for programming for kids, so they invite us every year to do a one-day program. We do youth programming with them all day while their parents attend the conference.

I try not to stick with the county lines. There is a divide, but it has been going on for the past 20 to 30 years. Sometimes I get in trouble with other county agents, but a majority of the time they’re just happy to have help.

What are some of the challenges that FRTEP agents in Arizona face?

I saw the disparities between local county extension offices versus tribal communities. It’s not the county’s fault. Arizona is such a big state. I’ve had to drive three hours for an hour’s worth of programming.

It’s easier for them to do programming locally and have a solid foundation, whereas when the agent could come up to Northern Arizona once a month to do programming, it spread them thin. Working with the FRTEP agents is the same story but different locations. There are never enough agents, never enough time.

We are essentially a Swiss Army knife. I do my own media, PR, programming, planning, and execution. I have to do my own administration duties. That’s the same with all the other agents, but for FRTEP agents in the areas where we don’t have the resources the county does, we’re still able to get things done.

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Why is expanding FRTEP funding so important to you?

I feel like kids are where everything will start to change. If we don’t have the funding to influence kids 20 years down the road, we won’t have anybody coming back into these communities to do the work that we’re teaching now.

It has to be consistent because we’re building something; it’s not just a one- or two-year problem that can be fixed. It’s a simultaneous year-after-year, inch-by-inch, long-term goal that we have for the kids in our community. That’s why the funding needs to be there so that we have agents that are willing to stay on reservations to help the communities.

I grew up here in Window Rock on tribal land. I went to tribal schools, and coming back, I know that I could make a lot more money, with my background, living in cities like Phoenix or Albuquerque. I’d have a lot better management opportunities, but because we have a strong family bond, we want our kids to grow up the way we grew up—with livestock.

That’s why we chose to come back home and live here, so our kids can have a strong family connection, and the funding only helps with the value of having me be here. Childcare is not readily available. There’s not a lot of places to shop. It just adds that attraction for people to stay within tribal communities and help build them up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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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