A settlement fund created from a landmark 2010 class action lawsuit is providing tens of millions of dollars to help tribes bolster agricultural companies, including access to critical lending needed to jumpstart operations.
Most recently, the Native American Agriculture Fund awarded grants to Upper Peninsula-based tribes to expand fish processing and provide a revolving loan fund. The $250,000 awarded to Lake Superior Community Development Corp. in L’Anse will deploy loan capital to Native farms and ranches across the state and includes business training and tax preparation for Native producers.
Those eligible for the revolving loan program include farmers, ranchers, harvesters and commercial fisheries that are part of any federally recognized tribe in Michigan, said Eddy Edwards.
“In the end, the big goal is to try to let tribes and tribal people be more self sustaining in regional food production, which increases food security and sovereignty,” Edwards said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for self sufficiency through food security, such as not being reliant on commercial food processing operations, Edwards added.
“Regional food systems are key to providing good food and more organics rather than corporate food processing we see a lot of,” Edwards said.
Edwards is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which was awarded $75,000 from NAAF last month to create an “integrated community food sovereignty system” through a certified fish processing facility and using fish byproducts to expand organic vegetable production. The funding will support traditional foods and expand the tribe’s capacity to process fish.
“Each and every family in the community is connected to fishing in some way. The KBIC supports its fishermen as well as other harvesters in keeping these traditions,” KBIC President Warren “Chris” Swartz said in a statement. “As stewards of the resources, our goal is to facilitate sustainable harvest of fisheries resources to provide into the future for the seventh generation.”
The Native American Agriculture Fund is a charitable trust created under a landmark class action lawsuit settlement in 2010. In Keepseagle v. Vilsack, tribes alleged the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Native farmers and ranchers in loan programs since 1981. Edwards said the NAAF is vital, as tribal members still report a burdensome loan process through the USDA.
The NAAF has roughly $266 million available in funding for business assistance, agricultural education, technical support and advocacy. The first funding round issued $10 million to 80 organizations across the U.S. The second round starting this year includes $15 million in grants. The pandemic also led NAAF to distribute $2 million in rapid response funding to 74 grantees.
According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, American Indian/Alaska Native farms represent 3 percent of all U.S. farms. In Michigan, the number of farms on reservation land increased by more than 10 percent from 2012 to 2017, comprising 2 percent of all Michigan farms.
Although the numbers have grown in recent years, Edwards said a majority of Native farmers are “small time.”
Bay Mills Community College, the tribally controlled educational institution of the Bay Mills Indian Community, received nearly $300,000 in 2018 under a fast track program before the NAAF was created. The college operates the 40-acre Waishkey Bay Farm, which serves as an incubator and research center for sustainable agriculture. The funding allowed the farm to expand staff and student programming as well as buy new equipment.
Edwards said the biggest need among Native agricultural startups is “equipment to do the job” at a commercial scale.
“It’s a great opportunity for economic development because food is something people buy everyday,” he said. “There’s a big swing to people becoming more aware of where their food is coming from, what it’s made of and what the (growing) conditions are.”
As a Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), the Lake Superior Community Development Corp. also assists members with the business side of establishing agriculture companies with accounting and tax preparation.
“We don’t want to just give them money, we want to make sure they’re successful,” Edwards said. “A lot of people might know how to farm and ranch but they don’t know how to deal with the IRS.”
The revolving fund will provide loans up to $50,000. Edwards’ organization also received NAAF rapid response funding for smaller grants of $2,500. He said the funding is about taking advantage of a program specifically designed to build agricultural capacity among tribes.
“This is an opportunity through NAAF to provide funding to Native farmers and ranchers for the next 20 years,” Edwards said, adding it will help “build capacity so they can be more self reliant.”