Growing Stronger: The Federally-Recognized Tribes Extension Program at Work
By Georgia Wluka, Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI)
October 16, 2023
Indigenous foodways, a term referring to the “complex significance of food within Native ideology,” reflect respect and reciprocity between human and ecological systems. The resulting agricultural practices embrace biocultural knowledge, resilience, and sustainability. More broadly, these systems are integrated with the local environment, as well as important elements of Indigenous tradition. Supporting Indigenous food systems, therefore, not only bolsters agricultural sustainability, but supports traditional ecological knowledge, nutrition and health, and Indigenous languages and culture
The Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) seeks to sustain these holistic, traditional, agricultural practices by bringing together government resources and tribal leadership. Founded under the 1990 Farm Bill, the program supports Indigenous farmers and ranchers through outreach and education. FRTEP agents facilitate a wide range of programs centered around traditional agriculture, sustainability, and community development. Specific program initiatives aim to reinforce Indigenous foodways, bolster climate resilience, address historic marginalization, and improve community health and food sovereignty.
FRTEP also facilitates collaboration between Native nations and land-grant universities to further sustainable agriculture research and implementation, both within and beyond tribal territories. Land-grant universities receive federal support to provide agricultural education or “Extension” programs to surrounding communities. These programs operate under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to “bring vital, practical information to agricultural producers, small business owners, consumers, families, and young people.” FRTEP operates parallel to county Extension programs, which are run through the Cooperative Extension System (CES).
Tracy Ann Morgan, Extension Coordinator for Washington State University (WSU) and the Kalispel Tribe, describes her role as a FRTEP agent as one that “enhance[s], perpetuate[s], or bridge[s] tribal government programs.” Historically, she says, academic or government action has been extractive and exploitative of Indigenous people and knowledge. Morgan works to facilitate connections between WSU and the Kalispel Tribe through research and joint experimental projects that emphasize respect for Indigenous culture, ideologies, and methods. Trent Teegerstrom, Associate Director of Tribal Extension Programs and Extension Specialist at the University of Arizona, points to soil mapping and rainwater harvesting programs as examples of this work in Arizona. FRTEP employees facilitate conversations between researchers and Indigenous producers to establish mutual trust and a transparent understanding of objectives before initiating projects on tribal lands.
Click here to read the full Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) article.
August 18, 2023
This Indigenous 4-H Officer Wants to See More Farm Bill Funding for Her Community
July 25, 2023
By Gabriel Pietrorazio for civileats.com
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 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.
Tribal ag extension programs need federal funding boost, experts say
Jan. 31, 2022
Tribal Business News
By Chez Oxendine
Little Canada, Minn.-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation has two contracts going with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The first is to provide legal services, such as will-writing and gift deeds for Native farmers and ranchers. The second is to support the USDA’s Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Programs and their agents.
FRTEPs serve as tribal parallels to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s county extension program, which is administered by land-grant universities and colleges. These programs provide localized agricultural services and research, such as planting information and weather data, to producers in a given area.
While the USDA currently lists nearly 3,000 county extension programs across the United States, only about 30 such FRTEPs exist in territories controlled by the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
“We just don’t have the coverage that the rest of the country does,” said Cris Stainbrook, president of Indian Land Tenure Foundation. “FRTEP is so poorly funded compared to the rest of the extension program that when they start talking about tribes participating and working in getting that information out to folks, it’s truly lopsided.”
The inequity presents a problem because tribal extension programs can serve as “lifelines” into communities, said Maureen McCarthy, director of the Reno, Nev.-based Desert Research Institute Native Climate program, a nonprofit climate and environmental research organization.
FRTEP agents often live on the reservations where they work and administer the extension programs, and serve as liaisons to the educational institutions, some of which are tribal colleges and universities. The agents frequently prove themselves to be the best advocates for a community’s needs and issues, according to McCarthy.
“It’s a program that is underappreciated. This is the lifeblood, this is how you hear what the community needs,” McCarthy said. “(The Desert Research Institute) works with FRTEP agents extensively in determining how best to help these communities.”
Having direct insight into a community’s most pressing needs serves as a shortcut through “red tape” that may otherwise delay badly needed aid, McCarthy said. She cited programs prompted by COVID that might have stalled in the bureaucratic process before reaching people in need if not for the local knowledge and community presence of FRTEP agents.
“We started a working group in March 2020, weekly Zoom calls with FRTEP agents from the land-grant universities and tribal colleges we work with. We took those urgent needs straight into USDA and other agencies,” McCarthy said. “We started programs where we just cut through a lot of red tape. We got resources onto the Hopi Reservation when their roads were closed — we got relief packages all the way up to Alaska.”
FRTEP agents positioned in those communities provided localized guidance, McCarthy said, noting each agent serves as a link between the range of agencies and institutions providing assistance and tribal members.
“We couldn’t have done it without these agents,” McCarthy said.
‘Underappreciated and under-resourced’
FRTEPs are funded through four-year competitive grants administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the USDA. As of this writing, NIFA funds 36 FRTEPs across the country, 33 of which are located on tribal reservations.
Funding for the grants is comparatively tight, especially given the areas in need of coverage. The most recent Congressional appropriations bill allocated $3.2 million in total funding for the FRTEPs. By comparison, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s most recent request for county extensions stands at $315 million. While the Cooperative Extension program pays more than 15,000 full-time employees, only 30 or 40 people are employed by FRTEP nationwide. (The USDA did not respond to requests for comment by press time.)
FRTEP was established as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, which outlined a program supported by a $10 million appropriation and a network of 90 agents across the country. However, FRTEPs have never received the initially promised $10 million annual budget, according to a 2016 Indian Land Tenure Foundation report.
Funding for FRTEPs peaked at around $3 million annually in 2005.
As a result of this meager funding, adding an office on a new reservation or territory often forces one to close somewhere else in Indian Country, according to Stainbrook.
Moreover, each agency typically employs one agent, and the funding awarded by each grant serves primarily to cover that agent’s salary and not much else.
“They have to find creative ways to develop their programs,” McCarthy said. “There’s like one agent per reservation, and there’s not 100 percent coverage to all of our communities. Tribal extension, as a whole, has been underappreciated and under-resourced in comparison to the major investments in cooperative extension that’s been made for decades by USDA.”
The lack of coverage delays or even halts the flow of information to participating communities. Farmers use that information for developing everything from planting to grazing strategies, Stainbrook said.
“The USDA talks about county extension programs being ‘key’ to getting information out,” Stainbrook said. “If we don’t have a comparable track in Indian Country, we’ll get that information late or it may never get to the reservation. If they’re key to the other producers, shouldn’t they be key to Indian Country as well?”
Organizations like the Indian Land Tenure Foundation are stepping up to help provide direct funding for agents. For example, Stainbrook said the organization recently purchased a rototiller for one agent. Even so, he acknowledges that private funding won’t be enough to close the gap.
In response, Stainbrook and others are advocating to change the structure of the FRTEP grants to allow for more projects in more territories through a multi-agency commission sponsored by the Native American Agriculture Fund.
“The commission is really to look at the FRTEP program itself going forward and expanding,” Stainbrook said. “It’s really to come up with what we want to see over the next ten, twenty, fifty years, and then begin getting that put into the next Farm Bill.”
The commission’s primary goal is determining how to expand and “uncap” FRTEPs, allowing for an increased budget and expanded employment.
“We want to solidify these existing programs so they don’t go away when someone new applies for funding,” Stainbrook said. “We want these FRTEP agents to have tenure and support the same way cooperative extension agents do.”
The commission, which draws its membership from Native agricultural agencies, FRTEP agents, and a NIFA adviser, wants to see greater equity between FRTEPs and the cooperative extension, which starts with expanding the grants and securing more funding, Stainbrook said.
Although Stainbrook estimates that tribes could use “75-100” FRTEPs to approach parity with county extensions, McCarthy aimed even higher.
“Every tribe in the nation should have a minimum of one extension agent, a FRTEP extension agent or access to an agent” through tribal land-grant colleges, McCarthy said. “This should not be negotiable.”
Each of those potential agents represents a valuable asset for the tribe they’re attached to, which makes expanding the program “critical,” Stainbrook said.
“They’re a committed group of people, more than I’ve ever seen in a lot of places, and that’s what keeps us involved,” he said.
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
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
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.
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
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
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,”
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
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
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.