WASHINGTON – For years, the numbers just didn’t add up.
From personal experience, Ross Racine, executive director of the Intertribal Agricultural Council, knew there existed many more Native American and Alaska Native farmers and ranchers than were being counted by the U.S. government, but, sans financial support and a will for an accurate accounting, there was little anyone could do to prove it.
“Many of our people have traditionally and continue to be farmers and producers; they live off the land,” said Racine, a member of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. “We just needed a way to count them.”
Despite Native Americans repeatedly raising the issue with various government agencies, federal policy makers and bureaucrats failed for decades to make counting Indian ranchers and farmers a priority.
As a result, many thousands of dollars in grants and other financial assistance and other forms of aid were never on the table for the Native stewards of thousands upon thousands of acres of lands.
“If they weren’t connected to the system, or even counted by it, it would be hard to get assistance,” said Carol House, a deputy administrator with the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the Department of Agriculture.
She said many government programs and money that comes from them have likely been deficient for Indian farmers due to the lack of a good census. She noted that Congress members often request data on various agriculture issues to get an assessment of the situation when crafting certain policies and doling out dollars.
The remoteness of many of the farms combined with distrust from many Indians toward government researchers didn’t make the problem any easier to solve, House said.
In absence of concrete data, Racine and others found themselves making arguments to policy makers for increased funding to Native farmers and ranchers on the basis of anecdotal and less sound data.
“The one big number we have been able to rely on is that we are the largest landowners, only second to the U.S. government,” Racine said. “But that isn’t exactly what many members of Congress and politicians were looking for.”
He knew there would eventually be an accurate accounting, but he calls the time he and others have spent waiting a period of “forced patience.”
“What could we do but wait? We raised the issue; it was up to the government to make it happen.”
Years of raising the issue with federal agencies finally paid off in 2002 when NASS conducted a pilot study to put more resources toward collecting reservation-level data for individual farms and farm operators on 19 reservations in Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.
Racine sat on the advisory board of NASS at the time, and was not surprised that the enhanced collection resulted in much more accurate numbers.
NASS and other USDA officials agreed, which is a big reason why they decided to conduct a large-scale, nationwide enhanced census of American Indian and Alaska Native farmers starting in 2007. The agency does a census every five years, which ends up being the main source of local, consistent data involving agriculture information.
“We did not believe we were doing as good a job as we needed to do, in terms of counting Indian agriculture,” House said, naming numerous reasons, including faulty data collection methods.
“We realized that we had to do things differently in order to build trust with tribal leaders and producers.”
The department ended up naming a Native American liaison to work with tribal leaders, and got more Native voices involved in the process, including Racine. Outreach at national Native conferences and at tribal council meetings became more common.
“Trust was greatly improved,” House said. “We were able to convince many farmers and ranchers that it was to their benefit to be counted: If you aren’t counted, sometimes you don’t count.”
In June, the numbers from the newest accounting were released. A huge difference from the 2002 census was found, with researchers counting 79,703 American Indian and Alaska Native farmers operating 61,472 farms and ranches. The number was up 88 percent from 2002, and significantly outpaced the seven percent total increase in U.S. farm operators.
The new census collected enhanced data for 73 American Indian reservations, including reservation-level information on agricultural production, economics and demographics for individual farms.
USDA officials said the effort was the first time the federal government has attempted to collect survey data from individual farm and ranch operators on American Indian reservations in every state.
The new style of collection explains the vastly increased number, since, in the past, an entire reservation was sometimes counted as a single farm. With the new data, each individual farmer or rancher on a reservation has been counted.
House said the numbers are more reliable, but that there is still more work to be done. For instance, some tribes need more convincing that this is a helpful process, which is why the agency is continuing its outreach to tribes in anticipation of its 2012 census.
“I firmly believe that when we continue this focused effort in the 2012 census, we’re going to see another great increase in Indian numbers,” he said.
The complete 2007 Indian farm data is available online at www.agcensus.usda.gov or by calling (800) 727-9540.