Native American Tribes Must Engage in Farm Bill Debate (Fred Starzyk, Heartland Advocates)

The below article is based on the report “Regaining Our Future” written by Janie Simms Hipp and Colby D. Duren with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, commissioned by Seeds of Native Health.

To learn more about Seeds of Native Health, please visit

As debate begins regarding the 2018 Farm Bill and its potential impact on rural America, much of the focus of the farm bill discussions will be on the importance of the income safety net provided by Title 1 programs and the risk management tools made available through crop insurance.

The Farm Bill is the largest non-defense piece of legislation tackled by Congress.  This mammoth bill is reauthorized every five years and touches on everything from taxes, trade and immigration to crop insurance, rural development and food stamps.

Despite its size and scope, Indian Country has been absent from the debate in the formation and ultimate passage of previous Farm Bills.  As this country’s first farmers, food producers, and stewards of the land, in the past Indian Country has been relatively silent in the Farm Bill debate.

Indian Country has a lot at stake in today’s Farm Bill and it is critically important that Native voices be heard.  Every title of the Farm Bill affects Indian Country.  All 12 titles contain policy issues and debates on which it is extremely important for Indian Country to engage.

For example, advocacy in support of 638 Authority for nutrition and forestry programs with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  This is critical for tribal self-governance, thereby allowing tribes the ability to engage efficiently with USDA agencies while giving tribal governments control over these very important programs.

Including tribal governments in the existing intergovernmental approaches of many programs administered by USDA is a small but important step for which tribes need to advocate.  Tribes should have the option of creating their own Departments of Food and Agriculture.

Within each of the Farm Bill’s 12 titles there exists opportunities for Indian Country to engage.  This memo outlines only some of the bigger policy areas in each of the bill’s titles that are ripe for tribal involvement.  Individual tribes may have different priorities but there are a number of provisions upon which there can be general agreement.

Title I: Commodities

  • Update the definition of livestock found in Section 1501(a)(3) to include other commonly raised livestock such as elk and horses or other animals raised or harvested in tribal communities.
  • Increase Livestock Indemnity Payments for Tribal Producers from the current 75% to 90%.
  • Include tribes and individual Indian producers as eligible for Commodity Credit Corporation emergency relief funds for livestock under Section 1501(d).
  • Amend Section 1606 on Geographically Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers to explicitly include tribal governments.
  • Require the Secretary of Agriculture to engage in consultation with tribal governments regarding the determination and election of “base acres” applicable under all programs within the Commodity Title.

Title II: Conservation

  • Develop a new section to the Conservation Title to recognize Indian Country’s efforts and practices of traditional knowledge-based conservation.
  • Amend the definition of “Priority Resource Concerns” in Section 1238D (5) to include tribal priorities.
  • Include a new section to the Conservation Title that would allow lands held in common by tribal entities or individual members to have access to all programs in the Conservation Title.
  • In all references to “state law” in the Conservation Title, add “tribal law” so the language reads “state or tribal law”.
  • Consider traditional ecological knowledge whenever the Secretary determines the level of compliance of landowners who have lands or resources enrolled in any programs within the Conservation Title.
  • Complete tribal parity in all programs within the Conservation Title.
  • Creation of a new fund within the Conservation Title to ensure that technical assistance is made on a continual basis to tribal governments and tribal landowners.

Title III: Trade

  • Expand the Market Access Program (MAP) to benefit tribes.
  • Include Indian Country as the USDA develops a stronger relationship with the Department of Commerce regarding food, food production and agriculture trade.

Title IV: Nutrition

Perhaps the Title of the Farm Bill that directly affects Indian Country the most.  With 25% of Native Americans receiving some type of federal food assistance, the Nutrition Title’s importance to Indian Country cannot be overstated.

  • Oppose reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • Allow tribes the option of entering into a 638 contract for the administration of SNAP and other federal food programs.
  • Increase funding of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) program.

Title V: Credit

  • Improvements must continue to be made to the Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs to address the availability, efficiency and application of credit programs in Indian Country.

Title VI: Rural Development

  • Provide a tribal set-aside within the Rural Development program authorities to address the lack of rural infrastructure in Indian Country.
  • Maintain Rural Water Program funding in the Rural Development Title.

Title VII: Research

  • Provide tribal set-asides and preferences within all National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) funding authorities.

Title VII: Forestry

  • Allow for greater tribal participation in Tribal Forest Protection Act (TFPA) projects by authorizing, as a discretionary pilot program, the application of 638 contracting authority to TFPA projects on Forest Service or BLM land.
  • Ensure that interdepartmental efforts to protect sacred sites are maintained and strengthened and improve USDA consultations with tribes concerning these sacred places.

Title IX: Energy

  • Advocate for the establishment of a tribal bio-based energy development grant program.

Title X: Horticulture

  • Change the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to include tribal departments of food and agriculture.

Title XI: Crop Insurance

  • In excess of 50% of the Indian agriculture industry is comprised of cattle and risk management tools must meet that need. Livestock producers in Indian Country continue to see a need for risk management provisions.

Title XII: Miscellaneous

  • Fully fund the Office of Tribal Relations at the USDA.
  • Authorize the establishment of an Office of Tribal Agriculture.
  • Create new tax incentives for a new “Buy Indian” tax credit program.
  • Increase cooperative agreements between tribes and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
  • Recognize Tribal Departments of Food and Agriculture.

Without questions there a many more recommendations.  These represent only a handful of the more widely agreed upon within Indian Country.  It is critical that tribes engage early in 2018 to have a voice in the creation and passage of the next Farm Bill.


Fred Starzyk is Co-Founder & Principal of Heartland Advocates LLC, with offices in Washington, D.C. and St. Paul, MN.  He specializes in Native American Affairs, Agriculture, Department of the Interior, and Homeland Security issues.