Native American Agriculture Leaders Detail Farm Bill Priorities at U.S. Senate Hearing

WASHINGTON. A roundtable of Native American agricultural leaders in recent US Senate hearings lobbied for increased sovereignty and social justice in the upcoming farm bill by expanding tribal jurisdiction over USDA programs.

It’s called the “638” power and refers to Public Law 93-638, which gives tribes the power to administer certain federal programs that benefit their communities. Powers are administered through contracts and treaties, and in recent years have been used to delegate control of health services and infrastructure to indigenous peoples.

More recently, it has been applied to Indigenous nutrition and wildfire management through two USDA pilot programs created in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii said the 2018 farm bill was the first to have indigenous communities “have a meaningful place at the negotiating table.”

Schatz said the goal of the March 22 hearing was to come up with a set of consolidated bipartisan recommendations to be submitted to the Senate Agriculture, Food and Forestry Committee by the end of March.

“The 2018 farm bill broke down 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 farm policy that includes Indigenous priorities.”

Indigenous leaders also talked about investing in the USDA’s on-reserve training and regional meatpacking initiatives, as well as expanding access to credit and federal farm programs.

The Farm Bill is a multi-year, comprehensive spending bill that authorizes a range of farm and food programs, including federal crop insurance, food stamp benefits, and conservation of farm resources.

The approximately $500 billion account is updated almost every five years and includes mandatory spending that must match previous farm accounts.

The food program is considered effective

Senate committee members and speakers touted the effectiveness of the USDA Self-Determination Demonstration Project, a 638 pilot program that allowed tribes to replace portions of USDA meal plans with locally purchased food. The project was created under the Indian Reservations Food Distribution Program in the 2018 Farm Bill.

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

Mary Green Trottier, president of the National Association of Indian Reservation Food Distribution Programs, said the self-determination demonstration project was a “success story,” especially amid the high demand for food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She added that the program has created opportunities to educate older indigenous people on how to conserve food during “tough” winters.

Madeleine Sobolev Levy, general counsel for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes in Alaska, said the program has helped the Tlingit and Haida tribes expand the distribution of culturally significant foods such as Tlingit potatoes and seals.

Other panellists advocated extending the applicability of 638 to all USDA nutrition, forestry, and food safety testing programs.

Trenton Kissy, director of agriculture and natural resources for the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma, said the Intertribal Agricultural Council hopes to see a 638 contract expansion for all USDA programs and offices. He stressed the prospect of extending these contracts to Security Services and Food Inspection, given the lack of regional access to food inspectors.

In response to a question from Democratic Senator Ben Ray Luhan of New Mexico, Vincent Cowboy, chief operating officer of New Mexico’s Navajo farming industry, said USDA inspectors have limited experience with local crops such as blue cornmeal and sumac berries.

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

Ryan Lankford of Montana’s Island Mountain Development Group said tribal colleges and the federally recognized tribal expansion program offer great opportunities to integrate USDA job training programs, especially for food inspection and meat processing.

Kissi added that the establishment of a tribal government office at the agency could help oversee the successful expansion of the 638 program, given the lack of clarity about what services can be contracted out.

“I think if there was a common ground there,” Kissy said, “it would go a long way in making that change happen.”

Limited access to loans, programs

Democratic Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota asked Lankford about the Bureau of Indian Affairs making it difficult for Natives to access credit lines and manage risk, given that many Natives’ agricultural land is held in trust by the Department of the Interior.

Lankford said that given that banks will not make loans using tribal land or equipment as collateral, a robust crop insurance program with high base subsidies remains a priority for indigenous farmers as some banks will post their insurance plans as collateral for loans.

Dustin Schmidt, a South Dakota farmer and member of the Rosebud Sioux, added that tribal participation in risk management programs is limited due to the cost of participation.

He added that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drought monitoring, on which many programs base their payments, is a “huge challenge” to the functionality of those programs.

“We had a severe drought for two years, and according to our drought monitoring, we didn’t have it,” Schmidt said. “In order to enroll in these programs, we have to fix it.”

Kelsey Scott, director of programs for the Intertribal Agricultural Council, said it’s important to note that banks can mortgage tribal land and equipment, but won’t.

“I think we could really reflect on the fact that historical underserving and lack of access to USDA programs have helped perpetuate this lack of wealth in many of these communities,” Scott said.

She pointed to the “much work” that Indigenous community development financial institutions are doing to fill this gap and the need to develop risk management infrastructure for Indigenous Peoples.

Lankford and other growers also spoke of the need to send local growers on overseas trade missions.

“The key to sovereignty is that we can expand and reach out to ourselves,” Lankford said.

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