Agriculture has always been, and continues to be, an important part of life for many Native Americans.
Farmers who have Native American ancestry operated over 60,000 farms with total sales of $3.53 billion, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS) Census of Agriculture.
However, until relatively recently, these agricultural producers did not have access to programs and support from the USDA, a roadblock removed in the 1990 Farm Bill with the help and efforts of the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC).
The Intertribal Agriculture Council
Founded in 1987, IAC was formed at the behest of Congress to bring about positive change in Indian agriculture. Much of the organization’s focus was addressing the legal and political barriers to Indian participation in federal agricultural programs that had existed since the 1930s. To this day, IAC aims to pursue and promote the conservation, development and use of Native agricultural resources for the betterment of Native people.
Student Essay Contest
The Intertribal Agriculture Council hosts a youth essay contest each year to energize Indian youth, gain the perspectives of young people about what agriculture means to them, and gather ideas about what could and should be done in Indian country to foster the continued growth of Indian agriculture.
The contest, sponsored by Farm Credit, invites high school students to submit essays on an annual theme. In 2019, students had the opportunity to propose projects they wanted to implement in their communities if given a $100,000 Community Agriculture Grant.
While there were many impressive entrants, three students walked away as winners of the 2019 essay contest: Peter Thais, Stephanie Guajardo and Makayla Torres. Read below to learn more about these winning projects.
The Return of the Three Sisters
In his essay, “Agriculture: Investing in Sovereignty,” Peter Thais describes how he will use his Community Agriculture Grant to implement his project, “The Return of the Three Sisters,” in the nation of Akwesasne, which crosses the U.S. and Canada border. The goal of Peter’s project is to positively impact three primary areas affecting Akwesasne: obesity, which leads to other health compilations such as diabetes and heart disease; food sovereignty, which Peter describes as “the movement towards self-sustainability of food products,” in which a community is able to feed themselves without relying on mass-produced foods and non-native agriculture; and encouraging renewed connection to land, culture and traditional environmental knowledge (TEK).
“The Return of the Three Sisters” refers to the traditional Haudenosaunee planting system of corn, beans and squash, three plants that grow well together and provide a nutritional diet to those who consume them. In practice, Peter plans to work with the Diabetes Center in his community to build gardens at the homes of people whom the center identifies as individuals who would benefit from such an opportunity. Peter would hire staff to build a 700-foot garden at participants’ homes, which would provide enough food to feed a family of five. Understanding that the maintenance and upkeep of a garden is the hardest part, these employees would visit weekly to help care for the garden, while educating the owners about gardening, as well as TEK. They would discuss Kanien’ke:haka culture and use the Kanien’ke:haka language. They would also encourage garden owners to donate any excess food they have from their garden to a community farmers market stall as a way of taking only what one needs and encouraging a community-wide value of unity.
Agricultural Network Education Program
In her essay, “Investing Where it Matters,” Stephanie Guajardo describes how she would use the grant to start an Agricultural Network Education Program (ANEP). Stephanie explains how there are two established 4-H programs that border her reservation, which spans 270,000 miles. She proposes a mentorship network be established in which each 4-H program would be paired with two remote reservation schools. The program would facilitate livestock and food systems education at the four remote schools that don’t currently have access to the same quality of educational resources as the border schools. In her project proposal, Stephanie would allocate $10,000 to each of the four remote schools, which they would use to pursue agricultural projects that both educate the students and meet the needs of the community, and $15,000 to both mentor schools to help them conduct educational workshops with their paired remote schools.
Next, $15,000 would be invested in setting up the proper equipment needed to facilitate cyber learning between the schools, such as purchasing computers and establishing a strong internet connection. This would enable the students from the different schools to learn from one another, as well as collaborate with other agricultural programs such as FFA, USDA and the Native American Business Institute. Finally, Stephanie allocates the remaining $15,000 to host and advertise an Agricultural Exposition that will bring together schools, non-profits and other community-based projects that work with youth on tribal, local, state and federal levels for networking and knowledge sharing. It is Stephanie’s hope that this project will help both remote and border schools feel that they are part of a bigger community working towards regenerative agriculture and educate all the youth on her reservation about Native food ways and culture.
Cattle Ponds Meet Aquaculture
In her essay, “Sustainable Fish Farming,” Makayla Torres proposes utilizing local cattle ponds for a dual purpose: watering cattle and raising fish for human consumption. She cites the many problems that exist across the globe due to overfishing and suggests that aquaculture in cattle ponds would be a way to sustainably raise fish for her community without overfishing nearby waterways. The fish raised would not only provide a healthy, local protein source, but would also provide another way to generate income. She plans to establish a schedule for raising, harvesting and selling the fish in line with conservation techniques to ensure sustainability of the project. She suggests that one way her community could use the profits they make from this new business endeavor would be to host educational events about sustainable fish farming. Another benefit of the project would be the way in which community members would come together as they work on this new, collaborative project.
We look forward to seeing all that these outstanding young leaders accomplish on behalf of Native agriculture in the years to come.