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It is no secret that Indian Country lacks the critical infrastructure it needs for its communities to thrive. 

We see this over and over in areas like basic utilities, broadband, financial infrastructure, water, energy and housing, just to name a few.  

Nowhere is this gap more visible than in the agriculture sector. 

The lack of agricultural infrastructure is holding back Indian Country’s farmers, ranchers, fishers, harvesters and community food people. It is negatively affecting the ability of our communities to build solid, sustainable food economies. It is holding back our tribal leaders from addressing food insecurity and health. 

A serious investment in Indian Country’s agricultural infrastructure would not only help us feed our people, it would create economic gains for our communities that we have not seen since the Indian gaming revolution 25 years ago. 

Investing in agricultural infrastructure could rewrite the story of Indian Country’s economy for generations to come. 

Currently, the Indian gaming sector dwarfs Native agriculture by approximately $33 billion to $3.5 billion annually. However, this annual $3.5 billion calculated by the USDA Census of Agriculture only accounts for the raw goods sold by farmers and ranchers. The Ag Census readily admits that it is undercounting Native agriculture by half, at minimum. This already sizable annual impact of the Native agriculture sector is occurring with almost no infrastructure and attention to coordinated action. This $3.5 billion is the story of the sheer will of individual Native farmers and ranchers and the singular actions of tribal governments and Native producers, many times acting in isolation from one another.  

There is an entire supply chain in agriculture that incorporates production, processing, further processing, storing, distributing, wholesaling, retailing, marketing, exporting and foodservice. Indian Country is not capturing this supply chain within its food and agriculture equation. This potential transformative effect is seeping off reservations, out of tribal communities, one truck at a time.  

A well-established rule in agriculture is that if you can connect food production (farming, ranching, fishing, harvesting) with other steps in the supply or value chain, you can capture impact and value to the original producers and their communities. Another well-established rule in agriculture is that for every job on a farm or ranch, multiple jobs are created in rural communities on Main Street — but to realize that effect, attention is needed. It is time for us to apply these well-established rules in Indian Country. 

I do not want to see Indian Country’s hard-earned food leave the reservation and our communities one truck at a time. In almost every instance, we ship out the food raised on our lands and increase the gap between food insecurity and healthy food economies in our communities.  

We need to fix this, and we need to start with infrastructure. We can readily see so many communities around Indian Country making significant investments of time, attention and resources to building food sovereignty. The amount of impactful work going on right now is stunning to see. But we need to turn our attention to the missing link of infrastructure, and we need to do this now. 

If you shop at the grocery store, for every dollar you spend on food, 15 cents (15 percent) goes to food processing. Food processing is what turns a raw product into something a consumer eats. Sometimes that happens by adding something to it like another ingredient (think buffalo plus cranberries); other times that literally only means that you packaged it to make it easily available. Think a bushel of wheat berries and a loaf of bread or a side of beef and a trimmed ribeye steak ready for the grill. Infrastructure can literally also mean a packing shed or a cold storage, and in other cases it means a grain bin. Sometimes it means a state-of-the-art facility with specialized equipment to transform a raw agricultural product into consumer ready food. 

If Indian Country processed all the food it grows, we would quickly be looking at a $6.8 billion industry, twice what we already are seeing within Native agriculture. Similarly, if we capture the packaging (2.3 percent) and transportation (3.5 percent) steps, we would see an additional $2.6 billion dollars of added value in Native economies. 

Combining these — $3.5 billion in food production, $6.8 billion in food processing, $1 billion in packaging and $1.6 billion in transportation — we could easily see a Native agriculture sector representing a $12.9 billion annual industry.  

If casino restaurants reopened and could utilize more Native grown, raised and caught food, $16.5 billion would be added to the Native food supply chain through that form of food retail, totaling $29.4 billion when combined with the $12.9 billion from processing, packaging and transportation. 

The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program alone purchases approximately $50 million of food annually in just that one program serving around 100,000 Native people. If you factor in the food used in our hospitals, clinics, childcare centers, other food assistance programs, schools and ancillary retail food outlets in our communities, the picture grows again. If you add targeted regional markets outside our communities and export markets, and if you capture anchor contracts by selling some of our Native foods to the federal government through their massive food purchasing activities, the picture continues to grow.  

I am by no means advocating that all the food leaves our communities; what I am advocating is that we have a laser-focused vision that harnesses the power of our peoples, our communities and our foods to turn the corner on food insecurity and our local economies.

But we cannot achieve these opportunities to feed our people better and also create food economies  and thereby forever address the levels of food and economic insecurity our peoples face without a substantial investment in our critical food and agricultural infrastructure. We need individuals taking action to plant gardens, plant fields, expand food production into new acreages and connect the dots between food and our people.  

Make no mistake: We also need access to the financing necessary to support our farmers, ranchers and fishers and the others who are doing amazing things in the time of COVID to ensure our peoples are being fed. The means our agricultural financing infrastructure needs a reality check and must be changed to adequately capitalize and support this effort for Native agriculture business development and Native food system development from farm to fork. But we cannot stop there.

Indian Country has what so many communities around the country would love to have: We have a deep connection to our land and our foods. We have traditions and retained cultures around our foods, we have people within our communities who have not lost their community’s traditional food knowledge, and we have access to natural resources. We have an amazing and growing number of young people within our communities who are as passionate about our foods and feeding people as anyone I have ever met in more than 30 years of working in food and agriculture. I place our up-and-coming young leaders in the forefront; they know the importance of our foodways and are ready to show up.

I estimate that an investment of more than $3 billion in agriculture infrastructure could begin to aggressively capture most of this food economy value. That more than $3 billion would build the basic processing, packaging and transportation regional infrastructure needed to bring more Native-grown food to market. That more than $3 billion would start to buy trucks and pay for people to operate them. That more than $3 billion would ensure that Indian Country’s food stays fresh and safe as it reaches its end consumer. And that more than $3 billion has the potential to return almost 10 times over in our tribal communities. 

Investing in critical food and agriculture infrastructure will have the triple effect of securing our food economies, securing our food security and health and securing our ability to withstand future shocks on our communities. With a combination of federal funds, private and philanthropic dollars, and with support from leaders and food people within our communities, we can build the foundation for the next steps in our Native food revolution. 

Our nation is at a turning point and we need to ask ourselves: How we will rebuild from COVID-19? This is just as important for all Native nations. What COVID-19 has shown us — and likely will continue to show us — is that we must have a plan for a unified push for critical infrastructure.  

I think we need to rebuild by investing in our communities, our foods and our culture. We need food and agriculture infrastructure in all its shapes and forms, and we need it now. 

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About the author: 

Before serving as CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, Janie Simms Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was the founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas. Prior to launching the initiative, she served as national program leader for Farm Financial Management, Trade Adjustment Assistance, Risk Management Education, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

She was thereafter selected as the senior advisor for tribal relations to Secretary Tom Vilsack and director of the Office of Tribal Relations. Prior to her work in Washington, D.C., at the national level, she has enjoyed a lengthy domestic and international career spanning more than 35 years in the agriculture sector as an agriculture and food lawyer and policy expert. Her work focuses on the complex intersection of Indian law and agriculture and food law.