Indian agri-business eyes boost for international trade

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - A bill has been introduced to establish a new office within the Department of Agriculture to research and improve Indian agribusiness for the world market.

It would create an office of Native American Agricultural Research, Development and Export to "encourage the efficient use of existing resources and assets related to Indian agricultural research, development, and exports."

The legislation, S. 2282, was introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"The United States has an obligation to assist Indian tribes with the creation of appropriate economic and political conditions," Campbell said. "Although there are many programs within the Department of Agriculture for which tribal and individual Indian producers are eligible, Indian producers have not fully benefited from these programs because of insufficient coordination."

Most tribes rely on some form Indian agriculture for subsistence or economic development. Department of Agriculture reports that the agricultural industry is the second largest revenue generator and employer in Indian country. More than 80 percent of the 55 million acres of Indian lands in the United States consist of crop and range land. While Indian agriculture is comprised mostly of farming and ranching it also includes such products as forestry, buffalo, wild rice, tobacco and other native products.

Some tribes, like the Gila River Indian Community, have formed strong economic enterprises centered on agriculture. Gila River Farms is an economic venture of the community in operation since 1968. It is comprised of five ranches, with approximately 12,500 acres. The farm's headquarters are on the reservation, 30 miles south of Phoenix.

Professional staff includes a farm manager, assistant farm manager and approximately 137 full-time and 250 part-time employees.

The community's council appoints a five-member Farm Board that is responsible for policy decisions and overseeing management of the farms.

Agricultural production includes crops such as cotton, alfalfa, small grains, melons, citrus, olives, and other vegetables. The farms also provide pasture for cattle and sheep grazing during the winter months, fish farming for local sales, and specialty crops such as roses, pistachios, and guayule. Since 1977, the farms and the community have invested more than $25 million in improvements to optimize the return for the farming operation and to keep the farms as efficient and effective as possible.

"As hard as the farms' management and employees have worked to make the operation successful, there are many areas where technical and financial assistance is required to enable the farms to compete in today's global agricultural market," said Ardell Ruiz, assistant community manager at Gila River.

Language in the bill spells out exactly that intent. One of the primary goals would be to encourage intertribal, regional, and international trade and business development to assist in increasing productivity, the standard of living and improving the economic self-sufficiency of Indian tribes.

Other tribes, like Zuni Pueblo, also rely heavily on the agricultural industry and are encouraged by the new legislation.

"Our agricultural prowess can still see a renaissance and revival from S. 2282's assistance," said Gov. Malcolm Bowekaty of Zuni Pueblo. "The coordination of resources under USDA for agricultural infrastructure rebuilding, research, export marketing and business development is very attractive. Projects from this agency could help in restoring native species of corn, beans, and squash for intellectual property rights establishment and marketing options."

While some are excited about the new legislation, there are concerns about making the bill's stated goals a reality. Currently, there is no authorization under the bill to increase funding for the proposed office.

"In the past, there have been similar offices located within the USDA, but the officials in those offices were never given adequate funding and authority, nor a permanent home where Native Americans could go for answers and assistance," said Ardell Ruiz. "To be successful, the office proposed in this bill must be given adequate funding to carry out its mandate to assist Indian tribes with agricultural issues."

S. 2282 is expected to be considered by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for markup in the coming weeks.