USDA Misrepresents Situation of Native American Farmers

On the eve of important White House meeting with Tribal Leaders, USDA press release celebrates increase in Native American Farmers but omits information provided in an earlier report that explained the dramatic increase in the numbers as erroneous.

For Immediate Release

Village Earth – Nov. 4, 2009 – Today, the USDA issued a press release celebrating the increase in Native American Farmers and Ranchers since their 2002 Census of Agriculture. This comes on the eve an important and highly publicized meeting between the White House and Tribal representatives from across the country.

“In celebration of American Indian Heritage Month the U.S. Department of Agriculture today reported that there are nearly 80,000 American Indian operators on 61,472 farms and ranches across the United States. This represents an 88-percent increase over the number of American Indian farmers USDA counted in 2002.” 

Just a week earlier, Village Earth issued a similiar release but provided greater context for the extreme racial disparity that exists in agricultural production on most Native American Reservations. According to Village Earth, “this most recent report by the USDA is a gross misrepresentation of the data, suggesting that the increase is due to greater inclusion and outreach when in fact it is the result of the USDA expanding the sampling area of the Census from Reservations in just three States to Reservations nationwide.” Today’s press release omits information, provided in an earlier USDA report that explained the dramatic increase in the numbers.

“Part of the reason for the dramatic increase in the number of American Indian farmers is a change in the way the 2007 Census of Agriculture counted farm operators on reservations in the Southwestern United States. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted a pilot program to count American Indian operators on reservations in three states — North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana — rather than simply counting a single reservation as a single farm operation. In 2007, the pilot program was extended throughout the United States. The majority of the increase in the number of American Indian operators occurred in just two states: Arizona and New Mexico, where the count increased from 694 in 2002 to 12,929 in 2007.” 

Today’s press release also failed to create a context for the larger picture of the racial disparity in agriculture that exists on most Native American Reservations today. While the USDA is correct to report that there are “nearly 80,000 American Indian operators on 61,472 farms and ranches across the United States,” that number only represent 1.6% of the total farmers and ranchers operating on Native American Reservation today, illustrating that non-native producers dominate on most Native American Reservations. In terms of income, the total value of agricultural commodities produced on Native American Reservations in 2007 totaled over $2.1 Billion dollars, yet, only 16% of that income went to Native American farmers and ranchers.

As reported earlier by Village Earth, the unequal land-use patterns seen on Native American Reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native land owners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening them up to non-native farmers and ranchers. Discriminatory lending practices, as argued in court cases such as the pending Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, claim that Native Americans have been denied roughly 3 billion in credit.  Another significant obstacle is the high degree of fractionation of Reservation lands caused by the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887. Over a century of unplanned inheritance under the GAA has created a situation where reservation lands have become severely fractionated. Today, for a Native land owner to consolidate and utilize his or her allotted lands they may have to get the signed approval of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of separate land owners. As a result of this complexity, most Indian land owners have few options besides leasing their lands out as part of the Federal Government’s leasing program. Additionally, historical and racially-based policies by the Federal government have been designed to exclude Native American farmers and ranchers from utilizing their own lands, opening them up to non-natives for a fraction of their far market value.

USDA Census Reveals Non-Native Producers Dominate on Most Native American Reservations

By David Bartecchi and Courtney Hunter
Fort Collins, CO (Village Earth) 10/23/09 — Recently released 2007 Agricultural data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Native American Reservations reveal that non-native agricultural producers dominate on most Native American Reservations in the United States. This is according to a study conducted by Village Earth, a Fort Collins based not-for-profit organization that works on indigenous land use issues on Native American Reservations in the United States and around the world. According to Village Earth’s study of the USDA data, in total numbers, Native Americans represent only 1.6% of the farmers and ranchers operating on Reservation lands. Today, for most Native American Reservations in the United States, more than two-thirds of the farms and ranches are controlled by non-natives. As might be expected, this disparity in land use has had a dramatic impact on the ability of Native Americans to fully benefit from their natural resources. Statistics on income reveal that the total value of agricultural commodities produced on Native American Reservations in 2007 totaled over $2.1 Billion dollars, yet, only 16% of that income went to Native American farmers and ranchers.

The USDA has conducted its quinquennial Census of Agriculture for every county in the United States since 1840 but it was not until 2007 when it began collecting this agricultural data for Native American Reservations. While Village Earth recognizes that this data-set is not complete, representing only 73 of the 388 Native American Reservations in the U.S., the results are consistent with data collected by a study from Colorado State University and with its experience working with Native producers on the Pine Ridge Reservation in their efforts to utilize their own lands.

The unequal land-use patterns seen on reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically, Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native land owners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening it up to non-native farmers and ranchers. Discriminatory lending practices, as argued in court cases such as the pending Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, claim that Native Americans have been denied roughly 3 billion in credit.  Another significant obstacle is the high degree of fractionation of Reservation lands caused by the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887. Over a century of unplanned inheritance under the GAA has created a situation where reservation lands have become severely fractionated. Today, for a Native land owner to consolidate and utilize his or her allotted lands they may have to get the signed approval of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of separate land owners. As a result, most Indian land owners have few options besides leasing their lands out as part of the Federal Government’s leasing program. Additionally, historical and racially-based policies by the Federal government have been designed to exclude Native American farmers and ranchers from utilizing their own lands, opening them up to non-natives for a fraction of their far market value.

The leasing of Indian Lands by the Federal Government dates back the the the Act of February 28, 1891 which amended the General Allotment Act to give the Secretary of the Interior the power to determine whether an Indian allottee had the “mental or physically qualifications” to enable him to cultivate his allotment. In such cases, the Superintendent was authorized to lease Indian lands to non-tribal members. In 1894, the annual Indian Appropriation Act increased the agricultural lease term to 5 years, 10 years for business and mining leases, and permitted forced leases for allottees who “suffered” from “inability to work their land.” Clearly designed to alienate lands from Native Americans, this act dramatically increased the number of leases issued across the country. For the Pine Ridge Reservation the practice was so widespread, that in a 1915 Government report, it was noted that over 56% of the adult males on the reservation were considered incapable of managing their lands and thus they were forcefully leased out. In 1920 the Government Superintendent for Pine Ridge wrote, “It has been my policy to insist upon the utilization of all these lands and the grass growing upon it and this has restricted members of the tribe owning stock to their own allotments, and such land adjoining that they have leased.” Not only were a great number of Native Americans denied the ability to utilize their allotted lands, many did not even receive the lease income collected by the Federal Government. Today, it is estimated that Native Americans are owed upwards of 47 billion dollars by the Federal Government for 120 years of oil, timber, agriculture, grazing and mining leases (See Cobell vs. Salazar).

According to Village Earth, the disparity in land use on Native American Reservations will only worsen with each new generation until Native Americans are given a fair chance at accessing the credit and other forms assistance available to non-natives. Additionally, the Government should honor its obligation as trustee and pay the over 47 billion dollars in revenue it has received for the leasing of Native American lands over the last 120 years. Lastly, the Department of Interior should place special emphasis on repairing the fractionation problem created by the General Allotment Act by providing information and support to individual allottees to consolidate and utilize their lands. In particular, speeding up the appraisal and survey process for which they are responsible.