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American Indian farms get help

Program assists farmers with bureaucracy, other issues by Claire Williams | July 9, 2016 at 2:06 a.m.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Native American Farming and Ranching, a program that helps American Indians in Oklahoma and across the country navigate the many regulations and challenges facing Indian farmers, is preparing to reconvene, and it is taking applications to serve on its council.

Janie Hipp, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law and a member of the Chickasaw tribe, said Arkansas’ program in agricultural law puts the state in the center of American Indian agriculture issues because of the complex rules dealing with agriculture on American Indian lands.

Hipp said tribes must deal directly with the federal government to get approval to use land for commercial agriculture because of the treaties that serve as basic law for American Indian lands.

“There’s a layer of bureaucratic approval and coordination with the federal government,” she said. “It’s different than any other producers in the U.S.”

Waterlines don’t always extend out to the far reaches of the U.S. that the Department of Agriculture designated “Indian Country,” she said. Roads, sewer systems and Internet access also limit native people’s ability to operate farms.

“Many of our lands are among the most remote lands possible in the U.S.,” she said. “The infrastructure is not as readily available.”

Every summer since 2013, the initiative hosts a summit for American Indian youth interested in agriculture. This year the summit will have about 100 students from more than 45 tribes, up from about 50 students in its first summer. This year’s summit will begin in about a week.

There are 821 farms operated by American Indian or Alaskan Natives in Arkansas, according the last USDA agriculture census in 2012. Nationally, the number of American Indian farmers rose 5 percent from the last census, in 2007, to about 58,000. American Indian farm operators sold $1.8 billion in agriculture products in 2012.

More than 75 percent of American Indian-operated farms specialized in livestock production, compared to 50 percent of all farms, according to the USDA. About 13,700, or 36 percent, of American Indianoperated farms raised beef.

American Indian farm operators have less access to the Internet, according to the 2012 USDA agriculture census. While 70 percent of farm operators had Internet access overall, only 46 percent of American Indians were able to connect to the Internet. American Indian farms also tend to be smaller than farms overall, with 57 percent of American Indian farms smaller than 50 acres, compared to 39 percent of all farms being smaller than 50 acres.

“It’s not impossible to do things [on Indian lands], it’s just additionally complicated,” Hipp said.

The median household income of single-race American Indian and Alaska Native households in 2014 was about $37,000. This compares with a median income of about $54,000 for the country as a whole, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

More American Indians and Alaska Natives were in poverty in 2014 than any other race group, at 28.3 percent. The nation’s poverty rate at the same time was 15.5 percent.

“It’s really important for these tribes to diversify their remote economies,” Hipp said. “The levels of chronic food and health related issues are so profoundly greater than any other people in the U.S.”

For information on how to apply to serve on the council, visit https://federalregister.gov/a/2016-16099.

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