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The deadline for the 2023 Farm Bill is fast approaching in September, with the potential to build on colossal successes for Indian Country that were present in the 2018 iteration. 

The Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC), an alliance of Native agricultural organizations, has put together more than 150 total suggested provisions for the bill, hoping to revitalize tribal self-determination programs, access to credit, and food sovereignty. 

NFBC has strongly supported self-determination by pushing programs that allow tribes to select their own foods — called “638 projects” under their initial implementation as a pilot program — as well as food sovereignty efforts, including increased support for meat processing and strengthened infrastructure. 

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As a partner in the NFBC, the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) at the University of Arkansas has helped draft some of that policy. Carly Griffith Hotvedt, associate director at IFAI, has had a front-row seat during the Farm Bill’s policy development and, consequently, seen broad support for the measures on both sides of the political aisle, as well as from the public through listening sessions and consultation periods.

With that wide base of support, Hotvedt feels positive about the Farm Bill’s legislative path ahead, even with a Congress that is so divided. 

“I think the perspective here is that this needs to get done, and it needs to be done in a bipartisan way,” Hotvedt said. “What we’re seeing is bipartisan support on these issues in Indian Country and the policymakers that support us are going to be influential in that process.” 

Hotvedt sat down with Tribal Business News to discuss more of those policy decisions in detail, as well as who the Coalition see as their biggest allies in Congress. This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

TRIBAL BUSINESS NEWS: The Native Farm Bill Coalition has ramped up public input on policy decisions through media outreach and a report with 150 suggested provisions. What has the response been?

HOTVEDT: I would say across the board, the NFBC advocacy efforts to support tribes and tribal producers and food and agriculture, through Farm Bill efforts, have been very well received. 

I have a positive outlook as far as that a lot of the topics that were brought up are going to be advocated for through the formal process at the congressional level, not just by tribes and tribal producers in the informal coalition, but by Congressional staffers and Congress people themselves.

Who are some of those lawmakers who have proven to be your biggest allies?

Senator Susan Murkowski (R-AK) has been picking things up in committee. We’ve also received support from Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) and some really good support from Senator Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) with regard to some 638 opportunities through food-distribution programs.

On the House side, there’s more than a few, but there’s so many more House members it’s hard for me to recall them off the top of my head. But I think there’s been a considerable amount of bipartisan support for many, many of the issues that the NFBC have been advocating for.

Seeing bipartisan support seems especially important in a divided Congress.

Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) says this next iteration of the Farm Bill has to be bipartisan to pass, and it needs to pass, because this bill is so impactful across not just Indian Country, but the whole of the United States. For us to maintain the world’s most stable and secure food system, these programs have to pass now, but we also need to remember that this system doesn’t have equitable applicability to every single person in the country, which is where our advocacy comes in. 

How does it look for some of NFBC’s priorities — the 638 food distribution programs, for example? 

I think there’s some positive movement towards that. The pilot programs under the 2018 Farm BIll have been so successful that I think it really lends support for the push to make [638 food self-determination programs] permanent into the next Farm Bill, and then expanded. 

Do you see any hurdles on the 638s? 

I think some of the hesitancy might come from agency staff who aren’t familiar with self-contracting and self-governance through that 638 process. But as the pilots have gone on, as they’ve been successful and they’ve seen support and feedback from tribes and tribal consultation about these programs, I think USDA is becoming more comfortable with that. There’s more familiarity, there’s more buy-in, and I don't think there's any reason why we shouldn’t look to USDA programs as being the next iteration of self-governance for tribes. 

There’s also been discussion of a self-governance office directly at USDA, because what’s been happening is that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a self-governance office that has been assisting with these 638 pilot programs. An in-agency office (at USDA) could help alleviate some of that pressure and crosswinds, and bring discussion of sourcing and implementation in-house so that agents don’t have to handle responsibilities they haven’t been trained for. 

The self-determination aspect goes beyond just feeding tribal members. It also feeds into food sovereignty and economic development discussions as well, right?

Absolutely.  When we’re talking about nutrition programs, the sourcing part is really crucial. But we’re also seeing tribes that are successful with these programs are investing in value-added opportunities — taking raw products to the next level through processing, packaging, labeling, and distribution.

Can you point to an example?

I’m a member of the Cherokee Nation, so my tribe in Oklahoma has been able to leverage pandemic-related relief funding to support their food sovereignty movement by bringing online meat-processing facilities and produce-processing facilities.  They have been able to handle those things themselves rather than outsourcing them to private enterprises. 

By having that value-added opportunity, it creates a better opportunity for local and regional market access, more economic dollar circulation on and within reservation economies, and avoids being extractive and having that value being pulled out of the reservation. 

A lot of the opportunities that we’ve seen and discussed through this Farm Bill process have really taken a look at those value-added opportunities and asked how to better facilitate access to those opportunities for tribes and tribal producers. 

Why is that important? 

That’s important because when you have better control over that food chain, you have better opportunities to make decisions and get those culturally relevant, tribally desired foods into that supply chain. You have products grown on reservation, harvested on reservation, processed, labeled, and sold on reservation. So this food hits either a feeding program or individual’s plate without ever having left the reservation or community. 

That’s really exciting because we can’t be sovereign over our food, or really sovereign at all, unless we can feed our own people …  and that is a huge, huge investment and component of our Farm Bill suggestions.

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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