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

You can listen to a version of this story on Gravy, a podcast by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Gravy shares new and complicated stories about the changing American South. The episode is online here, or you may download via your preferred podcast player.

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. 

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 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 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. 

Irina Zhorov is a writer and producer, focusing on the natural world and how we live in it. She’s working on a novel set in Soviet Siberia

This post ‘Absolutely discriminatory’: Access to federal agriculture resources lacking in Indian Country was initially published by Southerly

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