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The Leading Voices in Food

E116: The Origins and Vision for the Native American Agriculture Fund

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
February 23, 2021

Knowing that Native Americans were our country’s first farmers and have a rich and very special history with the land, one might consider it surprising and of course discouraging that some of the most challenging food and agriculture issues in our country confront Native Americans. Our guest, attorney Janie Simms Hipp is one of the most passionate and thoughtful voices in addressing these issues. Simms Hipp is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation and leads the Native American Agriculture Fund, the largest philanthropic organization devoted solely to serving Native American farming and ranching communities. The Native American Agriculture Fund is a charitable trust that provides grants to eligible organizations for business assistance, agricultural education, technical support and the advocacy services to support native farmers and ranchers.

Before serving as CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, Janie Simms Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was the founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas. Prior to launching the initiative, she served as national program leader for Farm Financial Management, Trade Adjustment Assistance, Risk Management Education, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development programs at the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture. She was thereafter selected as the senior advisor for tribal relations to Secretary Tom Vilsack and director of the Office of Tribal Relations. Prior to her work in Washington, D.C., at the national level, she has enjoyed a lengthy domestic and international career spanning more than 35 years in the agriculture sector as an agriculture and food lawyer and policy expert. Her work focuses on the complex intersection of Indian law and agriculture and food law.

Interview Summary

Let’s start off by asking how the charitable trust was created and the role that an important class-action lawsuit played in this.

Back in the 1990s there were several companion lawsuits filed at the same time against the United States Department of Agriculture. The Keepseagle case was one of those four cases and at its heart, it dealt with access to credit issues. It challenged discriminatory practices within the USDA Farm Service Agency Loan Program specifically, it sought to get remedies for a history of either denying loans or servicing loans that were granted improperly. The case was specifically focused on experiences of native farmers and ranchers across the country. It was certified as a class which meant it had national implications for people similarly situated across the country. It found its way into the court system into the federal court system as did the other three companion cases. The Keepseagle case was heavily litigated for very long period of time until the case was settled the elapsed period of time was a little over 19 years in the court system. Throughout that time period there were challenges that were dealt with day-to-day by native farmers and ranchers who were trying to get access to credit or trying to be serviced in their loans properly. And at the heart of all of this is the reality that if you are in the business of farming and ranching, participating in agriculture is very credit intensive anyway. And just as a matter of course when you cut off access points to credit so that you can actually maintain and build your business and operate from year to year can severely hamper your ability to stay on the land and stay involved in agriculture.

Janie, let me get a little more concrete about the impact this would have on farmers and what they might be seeking credit for?

Operating capital to buy more livestock, expand your operation or replacing your livestock. It was seed purchases, it was tractors, it was other pieces of equipment. Sometimes credit is needed to establish fencing or to put in conservation practices and just the transportation of food to market. So it’s very difficult for anyone not just native farmers and ranchers to actually make a go of it year after year in agriculture if you don’t have access to credit when you need it and in a fair way.

One can imagine this would have a devastating impact on the ability of farmers to make a living and also have an impact on the number of such people who are willing to be farmers or remain farmers. Did it work out that way?

If you actually look at the time period in which this case was brought start to think about what the national agricultural census says about native farmers and ranchers. I can tell you it says is that we are, on the whole, approximately four years older than comparable white farmers who are out doing agriculture. So we tend to be a little bit older anyway but then we have this up and coming younger generation of native folks all over the country who are very dedicated and very passionate about carrying on the food traditions of their people. It affects every community differently, but what is important is to stand back and think about is the relative age of farmers and ranchers and how they can bring along the next generation. When you’re talking about access to credit issues and how critical they are to building strong agricultural economies it really has an effect across multiple generations.

The Native American Agriculture Fund that you head up how was it going about addressing these issues?

The Native American Agriculture Fund is designed to actually focus on specifically the needs of native farmers and ranchers, and to really help them along and make sure that we deploy resources that can help them succeed. The fund became a part of and really owes its genesis if you will, to the settlement of the Keepseagle case. The leftover funds from the payment of claims to individuals who were affected by the situations that were at the heart of the Keepseagle case became what is called the corpus of the The Native American Agriculture Fund. So those resources are the fund itself but the creation of the fund occurred as a part of the settlement of the Keepseagle case. What were called fast-track funds were meant to get 38 million out the door quickly to organizations that interface with native farmers and ranchers every day. And then the remaining fund approximately 266 million became the center piece the corpus of Native American Agriculture Fund.

The trust agreement that created the fund can be found on our website but it has very specific terms about how we go about doing our business. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re standing up the fund and getting ready to begin making grants for a 20 year period. It’s a 20 year spin down trust and as such we very much are keeping an eye on the urgency with which we need to go about the business of moving these funds to assist native farmers and ranchers through the entities that are eligible to receive the funds.

What are some of the ways that you’re deploying these funds?

The important thing that we are to do under the trust agreement is to create a grant making mechanism. We are a charitable and educational fund. We also have received 501c3 status but we’re also considered a private charitable fund. To that effect we are allowed to provide grants and work in four subject matter areas is what I call them. And they are business assistance, technical support, agricultural education, and advocacy. The backdrop of all of that is the essence of the case itself which is deploying resources in such a way that it helps drive towards the success of native farmers and ranchers. So we can work in those four substantive areas but we also are required to move funds and resources out the door through the grant making process to four types of eligible entity. And those four entities are 501c3, CDFIs Community Development Financial Institutions, educational organizations or institutions as defined by the Internal Revenue Code but also state and federally recognized tribal governments or instrumentalities of those tribal governments. So that kind of gives you the frame, if you will around how we will be moving resources out during this 20 year period

Janie, a term that most of our listeners will be familiar with is food deserts. But I’ve also heard you in your lectures speak about credit deserts and it looks like this is exactly what you’re trying to correct.

If you actually think about moving resources into credit deserts, which are real, I mean, there’s many native communities around the country that literally have no banks, but the native CDFI movement has really taken hold over the last, say 20 some years. And they are pushing this envelope of making credit accessible through Community Development Financial Institutions. There’s a whole network of native CDFIs that are out there and now there are also a growing network of native banks. So moving resources into those arenas if you remember what I said previously the CDFI entities are one of the four entities that we can move resources through. There’s actually a part in the trust agreement that does not allow us to actually fund directly to individual farmers and ranchers either through grants or through loans, but we can move resources of the fund into the hands through grants, for instance, into native CDFIs and then they can turn around and do loans. So there is a mechanism to get those sorts of individualized assistance packages out to people but they have to come through the mechanisms that were created in the language of the trust that gave rise to the fund itself.

Both the aims of this and the scope of your help is very impressive. Let me ask you a different question. How important is food and agriculture, and tribal sovereignty around food and agriculture in the country?

Well, you could ask 100 people and you might get 100 different answers about that, I’m going to give you mine. And I’m going to also paraphrase what a lot of friends of mine say as well, proper leaders, as well as individuals who lead in the native agricultural arena. We talk a lot about how important tribal sovereignty is but being food sovereign and being secure in your food sources and being able to build strong food and agriculture economies is actually critical to tribal sovereignty itself, because if you cannot feed your people and if you cannot actually build that agricultural economy that can lead to a spillover effect, if you will, for other jobs either outside or inside an agricultural sector job then you really are hamstringing the communities themselves and you are impacting sovereignty itself.

There is a growing understanding that food sovereignty is critical to tribal sovereignty. I would say it applies across the board, food security is a huge issue for all people. But particularly if you’re talking about rural and reservation tribes and Indian people who live in those places it’s just so important that we know where our food is coming from that we have a hand and making sure that we have healthy food available to us. But we also have strong cultural histories around food and creation stories that talk about our relationships with foods and long histories within each tribe around our food sources and the lands and the waters and the four-leggeds and all of the components that sit around who and where we have been forever. The idea that you can separate yourself from food culturally, I’m not sure how peoples ever get to that point but obviously they do, but just recognizing that tribal sovereignty is so intricately intertwined with food sovereignty is something that is of high recognition across all tribes at this point.

The work of the fund will help reverse some of the injustices that have occurred in the past due to government practices and policies. What do you see as the policy priorities going forward for the U.S. government in this space? And are you optimistic that these changes might occur?

I think that probably the most important changes that are going to occur are the changes within us because we have the capacity and the memory and the abilities to feed ourselves regardless of what the federal government does. Obviously they can make it worse on us, but we actually have the inherent capabilities to do this ourselves. And I do believe that regardless of which government is in the office at the time native people find a way to keep going and we are not going anywhere. And we are going to continue to build out and make sure that we have the security generations from now. I’m not going to speculate on what could happen, three years from now or 10 years from now with regard to the federal government – I’m going to look to us and to all the native nations and understand we know that this is possible. But I will tell you though is we also are starting to see some really important things happen. This last farm bill for instance was unique because there were more native focused provisions written into this farm bill than ever before. There was the creation of a Native Farm Bill Coalition which had never happened before, and there was a lot of heightened understanding on the Hill, about what pieces of the farm bill could actually be changed to enable native nations but also individual native farmers and ranchers to access farm bill programs in a better way. So every little bit helps I will tell you, but I think the most important thing we can do is bring along the next generation and make sure that they understand how important this is and that they see their place in food moving forward.

So what are some of the things that people can do to become more involved in assisting native farmers and ranchers?

One of the things that’s happened very recently is the creation of the Native Farm Bill Coalition. A lot of folks think that you can just talk about the farm bill once and then it’s over but really that’s not the way it rolls out. I’ve been doing agricultural law for a very long time. You can do a lot in food and agriculture without even looking at the farm bill but it does have some moving parts that are important to food production and also the conservation of lands et cetera, et cetera. So I think it’s important to actually Google Native Farm Bill Coalition because it does have a place for allies to actually become a part and support.

The other thing is understanding and doing some of your own historical research about which native nations you live around citing things that are happening right now across Indian agriculture kind of writ large. There’s some things happening around you that you might want to know more about and reach out to the tribal governments that are there and to the individual native farmers and ranchers kind of around where you are and just ask how you can help. Because some of the things that are happening in Indian country writ large around food spill over into all of the communities surrounding us. So it’s just important for folks to do a little bit of digging and self-educate, but there’s also some tools out there that we will be putting out in terms of resources. I’m realizing that we’re just getting rolling but we intend to have some resources on our website that can kind of assist folks who want to participate.


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