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Control of Indian Agriculture Assets Is Essential

SANDIA RESERVATION, New Mexico— Many American Indian tribes are losing a lot of money by letting their farming and ranching assets be exploited off-reservation, a conference on Indian entrepreneurship here heard.

Zachary Ducheneaux, program manager for the Intertribal Agricultural Council’s (IAC) tribal technical assistance network, told the First Nations Development Institute’s L.E.A.D. Institute 16th Annual Conference held October 26-28 at the Sandia Resort and Casino in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that tribes and individual producers should be looking to a “value added” model.

One way to add value to Indian agriculture, he said, is to sell it overseas at premium prices not obtainable in local markets. IAC runs such a program that has, to date, resulted in $25 million in exports overseas, where products with the IAC trademark “Made or Produced by American Indians” get a premium status at international food shows. That $25 million is extra money coming in to reservations from the products they grow there.

The idea is to manage niche products to niche markets. “We’ll help you with export regulations. We’ll reimburse you for expenses in getting to the food show,” he said.

“It’s about resources, commitment and money,” Ducheneaux told the meeting attendees. “There isn’t a single individual Indian or tribe that can fill a container and send it overseas,” he said. But with the help of IAC, “If you have a product packaged and ready to show, we’ll get it to a food show.”

The international market isn’t the only possibility for value added, he said, using his own tribe on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation in South Dakota as an example.

Two of the poorest counties in the United States are on the Cheyenne River Reservation, he said. “The resources are there to change that locally,” he said. The problem is “our resource is being sold in the first transaction off our land. We can change that.”

“Our product is grass. On Cheyenne River, we grow grass,” he said. Of the reservation’s three million acres, about half is tribal or individual trust land, and 90% of that, 1.3 million acres, is grazing land.

At about 25 acres to support a cow-calf unit, and bringing in $250 per unit, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (CRST) realizes about $11 million a year. But after collecting that $250 per head for 44,000 animals, someone else is now controlling the value-add based on CRST grass, he maintained. And that is someone off the reservation who doesn’t want to spend money on the reservation and so spends it in border towns or elsewhere.

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Local control of the meat would add $22 million in money that would be spent on the reservation, he said. By contrast, the whole tribal budget is about $12 million per year. The feeding of the cattle to slaughter generates another $18 million, he said, also not local.

Adding in the whole line of value adds up the production chain, Ducheaneaux said $140 million in total value-add is generated by CRST grass, of which $50 million in profit goes somewhere else.

“There are a lot of pieces missing in the middle,” he said. “We need to develop infrastructure. We need resources.”

Developing sovereignty for tribes is bound up in these uncontrolled assets, he said. “If you can’t feed and clothe yourself, you’re not sovereign.”

And agriculture is the key to it, he believes. He estimated that of 55 million acres under current Indian control, 47 million of them are in agricultural production, either timber, farming or ranching.

“The largest economic opportunity in Indian country is agriculture. We’ve been doing it longer, and historically we’ve done it better when left alone.”

Ducheneaux himself has been a rancher in South Dakota. He had difficulty getting finance to get his business started in 1993, even with a Bureau of Indian Affairs Business Development Grant, which would contribute 25 percent in equity from the federal government if he could raise the rest from private sources. He eventually got a loan, from a neighborhood institution, the Bank of Hoven, SD, now a part of Plains Commerce Bank.

He ruefully noted that he bought 93 heifer calves for $560 apiece, and after spending about $175 more apiece on them, sold the cattle for $555 apiece.

Ducheneaux was later elected to the tribal council of the CRST, and was appointed to the IAC as the tribe’s representative, eventually becoming secretary of its board.

He said it was important for IAC and First Nations Development Institute to work together on agricultural issues.