Last week, I spoke to several hundred tribal leaders at the National Congress of American Indians Tribal Nations Legislative Summit here in Washington, DC. The conversation was wide ranging, but boiled down to two key topics: what have we achieved, and how can USDA programs better support sustained economic growth in Indian country?
USDA and our partners in Indian country have made significant improvements to critical infrastructure over the past five years. In the past year alone, USDA invested more than $625 million in Indian country through our Rural Development programs. We have worked with Tribes to bring new and improved electric infrastructure to Tribal lands and financed Tribal community facilities, including schools, medical facilities and Tribal colleges and universities.
Upgraded facilities improve the quality of life in Tribal communities and provide state-of-the-art healthcare, education and training, particularly for young people. Still, retaining talented young people in Tribal communities remains a challenge. This is not an issue exclusive to Indian Country—we face the same challenge of brain drain across rural America.
From my perspective, Tribal-owned farming and ranching operations and small agribusinesses represent an enormous opportunity for Tribal Nations to create the kinds of jobs and opportunity that encourage young leaders and entrepreneurs to put down roots in Indian country.
Certainly, there is significant value in expanding access to healthy foods for Tribal citizens and teaching Tribal youth about traditional foods. At the same time, Tribal-owned businesses also expand economic development by infusing depressed areas with new in-flows of cash and encouraging those dollars to be spent locally.
While many tribes have commercial farms and ranches, others are just now re-entering farming or ranching, as many did not have access to the land or capital required to operate until relatively recently. Access to capital and resources can make or break these operations, and, while not a situation unique to Indian Country, credit histories or a lack of records, including tax filings, can make accessing credit a barrier for individuals and small businesses.
USDA is here to help. Our agency staffs understand the unique challenges that face farmers, ranchers and entrepreneurs in Indian Country and stand ready to help navigate the landscape of USDA tools and resources.
One of the ways we do this is through the Obama Administration’s place-based initiatives, exemplified by the first tribal Promise Zone -- the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma -- and USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity, which works across the country and in 13 states with American Indian and Alaska Native communities. We partner with community organizations and technical assistance providers in these areas, like the Intertribal Agriculture Council, and provide extra help as they apply for grants, loans and other resources.
Initiatives like the Promise Zones and StrikeForce are just examples of the ways USDA has focused on place-based investments in rural and tribal areas. For example, our microloan program, which is a new initiative managed by our Farm Service Agency, offers small loans of up to $35,000 under a simplified application process with no down payment required. The idea is that by shortening the application process, reducing loan paperwork, and expanding the types of experiences that qualify toward meeting the loan requirements, we can better reach and assist smaller and niche-type operations.
It’s working: since the program began last year, we’ve extended $97 million dollars to more than 4,900 farmers and ranchers, including those in Indian Country. A $35,000 microloan helped one Native American rancher in New Mexico purchase 25 bred cows and begin working her own lease and grazing allotment on Navajo Nation, after being unable to obtain credit elsewhere. In Washington State, a $30,000 microloan helped a Native farmer purchase haying equipment. He wasn’t able to access commercial credit, but the USDA microloan enables him to continue farming while building a credit history for his future.
These are just a few examples of the myriad ways USDA works with Tribes. Whether you are a Tribe interested in a wide variety of construction and business possibilities or a Tribal citizen interested in establishing or expanding your farm, ranch or small business, I encourage you to work with our Office of Tribal Relations to get a broad spectrum perspective on the resources available through USDA.
I can say with confidence that we’ve worked hard over the past five years to change the culture of USDA and improve the way we work with Tribes to support their goals. The challenges in Indian Country and across rural America are not insurmountable. It will take time, but I know that with continued collaboration between Tribal communities, USDA and a wide range of public and private partners, we can achieve long-term economic prosperity in Indian Country.
Tom Vilsack serves as the 30th United States Secretary of Agriculture. As leader of the Department of Agriculture, Vilsack is working to strengthen the agricultural economy, build vibrant rural communities and create jobs and opportunity in rural America.