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Indian agriculture council goes for-profit

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BILLINGS, Mont. - The Intertribal Agricultural Council here has established a for-profit arm to develop private markets for American Indian farm and ranch products.

Ardell Ruiz, president of the new Intertribal Agricultural Development Corp., told a recent meeting of the non-profit IAC that the business arm had been launched on Sept. 1.

"It's a giant leap," Ruiz said. "It takes financing. It takes technical know-how. And it takes guts."

Ruiz said the venture was started in the wake of the IAC's success in marketing American Indian products at overseas food fairs in Tokyo, Paris, Cologne, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Ruiz wants the development group to inventory all Indian products, build a supply from council members, and then look for markets appropriate to Indian producers in a way that fosters tribal identity.

He pointed to the success of Gila River Farms, run by the Gila River community of Arizona, as an example to emulate.

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Mark Wadsworth, Sho-Ban, the council business development manager, told the recent council symposium in Las Vegas that the group hopes to capture "a small percentage" of a billion-dollar market.

Ruiz noted that the development corporation has found several Minnesota-based, private-sector partners.

One, Pete Hudgins of Red Oak Farms, said he is excited about the possibility of branding Native American free-ranging beef products. Hudgins' firm in Detroit Lakes specializes in Hereford stock.

Greg Smitman, council executive director, noted in his annual report that IADC was incorporated as a for-profit in Delaware with a mandate "to start and support agri-businesses which will use Indian agriculture production and value added business to access new markets and achieve higher prices and more return for the reservation agriculture community."

Smitman said the move was part of an initiative to decrease IAC's reliance on grant and government funding. His report noted that founding president Robert Miller stepped down and was replaced by Richard Bowers, Seminole.

He reported the organization has grown "from a basement office, a single source of funding and borrowed equipment to a million-dollar, 15-employee organization with thirteen funding sources with a headquarters office, five full-time regional offices across the country and three additional part-time employees on reservations."

The council trademarked the term "Made by American Indians" and featured it this year at international food shows in Tokyo and Paris. It has found that European markets will support specialty-food pricing for Indian-made products. It wants to trademark the term with the European Union.