Every five years Congress goes through a massive legislative exercise, crafting a wide-ranging farm bill that now includes about a half-trillion dollars in spending. And every five years, American Indian leaders say they have largely been left on the sidelines.
"Indian tribes have been either ignored or overlooked or been the victim of policy changes since we can remember, that's just a fact of life," said Keith Anderson, vice chair of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, which is leading an effort to exert more influence by tribes in negotiations that are getting underway for a new farm bill.
Anderson said as his wealthy tribe provided grants to other Indian nations for infrastructure and healthy food initiatives, leaders realized there was no focused lobbying effort across Indian Country.
"We just recognize that the needs that might not be getting heard and the leverage that we can produce with that economic success by attaining our friends in Congress is just something we need to do, we need to do what we can do for who aren't there," said Anderson.
More than 30 tribes across the country are part of the new Native Farm Bill Coalition. Partners include the National Congress of American Indians, the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the Intertribal Agriculture Council.
"The effort of the Native Farm Bill Coalition represents the very first time such a concerted effort has been made on behalf of all of Indian country and only Indian country," explained Zach Ducheneaux who lives in South Dakota, works for the Intertribal Agriculture Council and has been involved in farm policy for years.
The most recent USDA census counted more than 56,000 American Indian operated farms and ranches across the country.
Ducheneaux said the farm bill can help develop a stronger tribal agriculture economy by funding projects that add value to livestock or crops produced by Indian farmers and ranchers.
But the legislation is so broad it can help tribes in many areas only loosely linked to farming.
"There's really no part of a reservation community that the farm bill will not impact. Everything from the electricity to the water that you use, the food on the grocery store shelves, the buildings that you're going to house your community activities in," said Ducheneaux. "It's absolutely critical that Indian Country realize how big of a player this could be in their game."
Nutrition is the largest part of the farm bill, accounting for about 80 percent of spending in the current law. It's estimated 25 percent of tribal members across the country use federal nutrition programs, but in some poor communities as many as 60 percent of residents rely on USDA food assistance.
Some tribes already provide food for nutrition programs. For example, the White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota sells thousands of pounds of wild rice to the USDA for use in food programs.
The Native Farm Bill Coalition would like to see that connection expanded.
Spending in the current farm bill totals nearly $500 billion over five years, and funding in the new bill is not expected to grow. But Janie Hipp says that doesn't mean tribes can't access more funding. The director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas believes big improvements in Indian Country can happen by simply changing how the USDA implements the next farm bill.
"Enhancing how the existing programs can be delivered more effectively in Indian country to help us build value added agriculture, to build stronger food economies. But also to improve health, and the economic diversity within tribal communities," said Hipp.
One area of focus for the Native Farm Bill Coalition is rural development programs which provide funding for housing, public infrastructure and business development.
The Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota is a good example of using farm bill programs, according to Ducheneaux, who notes Red Lake has received $18 million in the past 10 years in the form of rural development funding and conservation programs.
But Ducheneaux says tribes often don't have the resources to access federal funding.
"The challenge that we face in much of Indian country is that we're dealing with some of the most impoverished communities in the nation. And too often rural development dollars come tied to a cash match," he said.
The coalition will lobby for a farm bill provision allowing the USDA to waive the cash match for grants to impoverished areas.
Keith Anderson with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community says digging into the farm bill has been a learning experience. But he said the Native Farm Bill Coalition represents a long term commitment to giving Indian tribes a louder voice at the table.
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