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January 30, 2020

‘Absolutely discriminatory’: Access to federal agriculture resources lacking in Indian Country

This article was originally published Nov. 27, 2019 at southerlymag.org.

Harold Long has always saved seeds. A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, he comes from a long line of farmers and acquired his agriculture knowledge through a lifetime of self-sustenance on the Qualla Boundary, a 60,000 acre mountainous corner of tribal land in western North Carolina. 

In the early 2000s, an extension agent named Sarah McClellan Welch, hired by the tribe to get families to garden and farm, worked with Harold and his wife, Nancy, to expand their seed-saving practice. The Long Family Farm now spreads across 40 hill-hemmed acres in Murphy, North Carolina, where, on a muggy fall day, dog barks echo across the neatly trimmed, grassy valley, and quails burble in an old barn. Their heirloom seed business now makes up 20 to 30 percent of their annual income. 

When McClellan Welch retired in 2015, the Longs cried. “It was just such a loss,” Nancy said. “They need to have a key person in there to really work with the people.” 

The extension agent position is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture program designed to educate and work alongside Native American farmers, called the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP). But the program is chronically underfunded and only serves a small percentage of tribes in the South and across the U.S., making it difficult for some tribal communities to access agricultural services. 

Harold Long holds a bean varietal said to have been carried by Cherokee tribal members during the Trail of Tears.
Photo by Irina Zhorov

The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service was designed to help farmers succeed. In the 19th century, Congress tasked public land grant universities with providing agricultural education and conducting research. The extension service, established in 1914, funded agents to carry that knowledge to people who needed it. Extension was a real boon to farmers, said Joe Hiller, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona who’s been involved with the state’s extension efforts for years. But Hiller, who is Lakota, said tribes were not included in the “extension revolution.” 

In some treaties with Indigenous people during in the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. promised agriculture services, like tools and instructions, to assimilate tribes to white society by making them adopt European agronomy instead of their own agriculture practices. For example, in a 1791 treaty with the Cherokee, the U.S. laid down its intent to make the tribe “herdsmen and cultivators” by furnishing “gratuitously the said nation with useful implements of husbandry, and further to assist the said nation in so desirable a pursuit,” in order to lead them “to a greater degree of civilization.” 

The U.S. government abandoned assimilation policies in the 1900s. It also sidelined treaty promises and the extension program didn’t step in. Funding and complicated jurisdiction issues gave counties an excuse to avoid reservations. “The county commissioners, generally, were not interested in seeing a county agent — ‘their employee’ — work on a reservation,” Hiller said. 

In the 1980s, severe droughts in the plains states pushed tribes to demand extension for Indian Country. The 1990 Farm Bill established what is now called FRTEP, a parallel extension service intended to specifically serve Native Americans living and farming on tribal land. 

FRTEP currently funds 36 projects around the country with a budget of about $3 million per year. The average grant is $80,000 per project per year, which usually covers an agent’s salary and benefits. Most of the FRTEP projects are in the West, where the majority of federally recognized tribes are. There are 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., which means less than 10 percent receive extension services. 

Many more tribes don’t have federal recognition and don’t qualify for FRTEP funding. Of the Bureau of Indian Affairs eastern region, which includes 34 tribes, only five have FRTEP agents: the Seminole Tribe in Florida, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Virginia, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee.  

By contrast, county extension offices exist in nearly every county in the country.

Extension agents are there to respond to local needs, whether that’s helping commercial pork operators in eastern North Carolina, Christmas tree farmers in the western part of the state, or the suburban flower gardeners in between. FRTEP agents are also required to work with an ear to tribes’ unique requirements, history, and cultural norms.  

The Qualla Boundary, pictured above in 1975, is a mountainous region of North Carolina that now belongs to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Photo by Bill Hathorn

The projects vary: for example, the Seminoles’ agent is focused on improving cattle forage production. The Seminole tribe’s agent, Aaron Stam, said he spends most of his time working on grazing and managing invasive weeds. The Cherokees’ agent promotes self-sufficiency.  

Chumper Walker, who is a Cherokee citizen, works with the FRTEP agent as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Extension Director in North Carolina. He said that before the U.S. government forcibly removed his people from their land, which stretched across what are now several Appalachian states, and marched them west on the Trail of Tears, the tribe’s cornfields stretched as far as the eye could see. Colonization robbed people of land, certain foods and skills. “They relied a lot on government surplus and government food rations so a lot of people either lost access to their seed or the seed became where it was infertile anymore,” Walker said. 

When Walker hired Sarah McClellan Welch, who is non-Native, as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ FRTEP agent, she saw her mission as  helping “families improve their health and their nutrition and especially to strengthen their cultural experience through their agricultural heritage.” Along with her husband, Kevin Welch, who is a Cherokee citizen, she started an heirloom seed bank and began working with the Longs. 

Harold wanted to focus on Cherokee varieties. “I like the taste, the good taste,” Harold said, “I like the history of the seeds.” He sowed crops with stories to tell; a bean variety thought to have traveled in Cherokees’ pockets on the Trail of Tears. He found blue corn seed that he traced back to the man who started the Cherokee Indian Fair, an annual celebration of local culture. Welch traveled to Oklahoma to find a Cherokee tan pumpkin seed, which the Longs now grow. 

McClellan Welch helped the Longs with everything from procuring seeds to making sure they thrived to marketing them. The tribe’s former Principal Chief Michell Hicks sponsored garden kits to help get more people interested in farming. The Longs packed and bundled seed packets of tomatoes, candy roaster squash, beans, and more to distribute to Cherokee families, and McClellan Welch worked with them to set up gardens. The program remained even as principal chiefs changed. 

Today, about 800 Cherokee families sign up to receive a seed kit in the spring. In the summers, gardens bloom in yards around the Qualla Boundary. But the tribe hasn’t had a steady agent to work with people for 34 of the 48 months since McClellan Welch’s departure, leaving programs in limbo and people like the Longs without steady support. “There’s not enough resources,” Harold said. 

County extension has federal, state and local support, so each agent’s budget remains fairly steady.  But funding for the tribal program isn’t stable. To receive money, tribes must submit competitive grant applications. While some tribes win the grants every four-year cycle, some haven’t yet had their projects funded. 

“For extension to be effective, it’s important to have a consistent presence,” said Rick Klemme, who advocates for extension on behalf of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. Steady relationships with local organizations, universities, and farmers are key, he said. “You move away from a stable funding to less stable funding, then I think it becomes difficult. You just can’t leave and come back, particularly in areas that are underserved in the first place.” 

The Longs grow a blue corn variety that they’ve traced back to the man who started the Cherokee Indian Fair, a celebration of local culture. They say the stories behind the seeds they produce are just as important as the taste. Photo by Irina Zhorov

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have managed to hold on to FRTEP funding, and they have support from North Carolina for additional agents, like Chumper Walker. Many tribes, like the Seminoles, have just one grant-funded FRTEP agent. The insecurity around funding, Stam said, is “a 800-pound gorilla in the room for every FRTEP agent.” 

Hiller said that unstable funding and the fact that the tribal extension program doesn’t serve every tribe that wants agricultural education adds up to glaring inequality. “The lack of extension in Indian Country is absolutely discriminatory in my mind,” he said. “Absolutely.” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture denied an interview request, but a report by the agency shows that current funding levels are too low to meet demand. It also states that the competitive grant cycle creates “instability and inconsistency in marginalized, impoverished and underrepresented communities.”  

The Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, a coalition of government, nonprofit, and other groups that promotes tribal sovereignty, has lobbied to increase FRTEP funding to $10 million — the amount envisioned when the program was created in 1990 — so far unsuccessfully. The Initiative has also asked Congress to require that county extension agents’ work with local tribes be compulsory and documented. While some county agents are building relationships with local tribes, their presence remains inconsistent. 

This year, Nancy and Harold Long planted an L-shaped half acre of hemp. In the dry summer, they hand watered each plant, tenderly caring for their new crop. They’d like to make CBD oil, but hemp is a newly legal crop in North Carolina, so they have a lot of questions, ranging from irrigation to licensing. Recently, Nancy called a local county extension agent for help. She said the agent wasn’t familiar with hemp and advised her to “wait a couple of years and just see what happens.” The Longs didn’t want to do that. “We wanted to jump in, we wanted to experiment, we needed answers.”  

Nancy says that’s why it’s important for the tribe to have a dedicated agriculture agent, someone aligned with the tribe’s goals and willing to work with community members to accomplish them. “I just think that when the tribe is working with Harold or tribal members, they’re really invested and they want to see their farmer succeed.” 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently hired a new FRTEP agent. The Longs haven’t met him, yet, but they’re crossing their fingers he stays a while. There’s a lot of work to do. 

April 11, 2019

With UConn’s help, Mashantuckets aim to cultivate a healthy future

This article was published at theday.com on Sept. 19, 2019.

North Stonington, Conn. – In his mind’s eye, Daniel Menihan Jr. sees a time when backyard vegetable gardens dot the Mashantucket Pequot reservation, their yields nourishing healthy tribal families. By then, he figures, the Mashantuckets’ own commercial growing operation could be regularly supplying produce to Foxwoods Resort Casino restaurants. It’s a pretty picture. And it’s not far-fetched.

Two years into a four-year collaboration with the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, tribal members led by Menihan, a tribal councilor, have grown sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes on tribe-owned property here on Swantown Hill, near Foxwoods’ Lake of Isles golf courses. They’re about to harvest honey and will soon plant lettuce.

Funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program, the undertaking seeks to improve food security among the Mashantuckets; engage tribal youth; boost the economic viability of the 1,100-member tribe’s agricultural enterprises, and educate tribal members about nutrition and health. “It’s a great investment from the health standpoint,” said Menihan, who likes to emphasize that aspect of the program. “We bring the kids up here and let them pick stuff and take it home. They light up.”

Menihan, joined by Shuresh Ghimire, a UConn Extension educator who helped the tribe secure the federal grant, led a recent tour of the Swantown Hill property. Part of a 187-acre parcel known as the Ackerman Farm, it was purchased by the tribe about 15 years ago. Participants in the program have tilled a cornfield and a children’s garden and constructed two side-by-side high tunnels — greenhouse-like structures that facilitate growing in a semi-controlled environment. The high tunnels are not heated, and the plants grown inside them are rooted in the ground. In greenhouses, plants typically are grown in containers.

With Ghimire guiding the process, the tribe grew tomatoes in one of the high tunnels during the growing season that recently concluded. Some of the harvest was sold at a stand on the reservation to tribal members, employees and the community. The plan is to start selling tomatoes to Foxwoods in 2020

The $280,000 federal grant — $70,000 a year for four years — and additional funding from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a nonprofit organization, has so far provided for soil-testing, the high tunnels, hook-ups for water and electricity, development of a business plan and the purchase of such equipment as cold storage, a disc harrow, a rototiller and a mulch layer.

A good chunk of the grant money goes to pay two youthful tribal members who are being trained in vegetable-growing, knowledge they will impart to tribal youth. Some of the training takes place in a classroom. In a sign of its commitment to the program, the tribe also has created two full-time positions to support the growing efforts, Menihan said.

The program has helped foster a relationship between the tribe and UConn Extension, an outreach service that maintains offices around the state, including one in Norwich, about 10 miles from the tribe’s reservation. Despite the proximity, there had been little interaction between the two.

“They rarely attended our events; we knew little about them,” Ghimire said. “We sat down together and talked about the need for this grant. We knew we could help them to grow their own food and help with health and nutrition within their cultural ways.”

Menihan said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, played a key role in making it happen.

Growing vegetables was hardly foreign to the historically agrarian tribe, which raised the “three sisters” — corn, beans and squash — as well as tobacco centuries ago. After the tribe reorganized in the 1970s, and before it gained the federal recognition that allowed it to pursue gaming in the 1980s, members raised hogs, harvested maple syrup and grew hydroponic lettuce.

More recently, the tribe’s Sugar Shack maple syrup business started selling syrup at Foxwoods in 2016 and currently provides it to the casino’s Cedars Steaks & Oyster and VUE 24 restaurants. The syrup also is available at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and at the tribe’s Pequot Outpost convenience store.

Ghimire said federal officials monitoring the tribe’s progress have been impressed. About 40 percent of the benchmarks for the four-year program were achieved in the first year, according to Menihan.

Still ahead are the establishment of a 4-H Club for tribal youth and further educational outreach to tribal members in need of information about nutrition and diabetes, a disease endemic in Indian Country. Healthier eating, including less consumption of fast food, is a goal tribal populations embrace.

Menihan wants to work on establishing a Mashantucket Pequot Department of Agriculture as a standalone division of tribal government. He said the idea has the support of the tribal council and tribal membership. “You want to do right first,” he said of the health aspect of the growing program. “That’s the real priority.”

Hence his goal of seeing, within 10 years, “vegetables growing in everybody’s backyards.”

He readily acknowledged that the economics are important, too. Before the federal grant money runs out in 2021, the Mashantuckets’ commercial farming operation might have to be able to sustain itself as well as the tribe.