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Racine sees chance in farm bill

WASHINGTON - A long labored-over farm bill has become law and now it needs appropriations, according to Daniel Cordalis of the National Congress of American Indians.

For NCAI, he added, work on it began a year ago, and the concerns that emerged from Indian country were, to paraphrase: ''How do we improve nutrition?'' - ''How can we get support for food distribution, health and food security?'' - ''How can small-scale rural assistance programs make a difference for Indian agricultural producers?''

Provided appropriations, the farm bill combines a back-to-basics answer with modern technology. The bill authorizes loans and loan guarantees for broadband access to the World Wide Web, and it would extend Rural Utility Service loans for telecommunications in ''Substantially Underserved Rural Areas.'' It would also put more agricultural extension program agents, historically a backbone of small farming operations, into the field for Indian country.

In addition, and more to the immediate point for Indian and Alaska Native households, it encourages locally grown food producers to supply federal food distribution programs. Bison in the Midwest, salmon in Alaska and the Northwest, corn varieties and desert foods in the Southwest, wild rice in the Great Lakes region, the ''Three Sisters'' of corn, beans and squash in the Northeast - local producers of these and other specialty foods and crops can find a paying outlet in the supply of federal food programs.

''This is what agriculture is supposed to do in the first place,'' Cordalis said of local growing and processing.

Cordalis arranged to include Ross Racine, executive director of the Intertribal Agricultural Council, on a conference call. Racine sees the potential in the farm bill and raises it. A major opportunity is for local agricultural producers to get their products into school lunch programs. Thereby, the specialty foods title of the bill can enhance local prosperity, health and food security all at once, he said. Local farmers markets, making up for the shortage of fresh vegetables that is typical of many reservations, can also thrive under provisions of the farm bill, Racine added. ''And when you hook that up with funding, policy ... that only helps us to take advantage of our production systems.''

Given Indian country's 46 million acres of grazing lands, and 2.4 million cattle at a dollar per pound, the cattle industry alone accounts for $2 billion annually in agricultural productivity, not even counting specialty crops, Racine said. Overall, agricultural productivity figures run into the billions every year, he said, accounting for the biggest revenue stream of 130 tribes. In Montana alone, Indian cattle producers and small grain growers generate $35 million annually, yet the average household income on those seven reservations is only $14,000 per year.

Taken altogether, the agricultural numbers for Indian country say something important about prosperity in largely rural Indian country. ''It's not going to be done a garden at a time. We can't do it one garden at a time. So we have to look at these larger production systems to get this done in a way that helps communities.''

He's not preaching agribusiness; in fact, he considers it an organized opposition to the locally grown, slow growth, food security movement that has evolved for at least a decade, and now acquires new urgency in view of rising fuel prices that in turn trigger higher food prices at stores that rely on over-the-road long-distance transport. And of course, there's more than pricing to consider in Indian country: ''Sustainability and sovereignty all come down to whether you can feed yourselves.''

In addition to its other virtues, the farm bill has the right ingredients and resources to give Indian agricultural producers a role in the revitalization of rural food security, Racine believes.

''All in all, I think this was a very good farm bill in terms of opportunity for tribes.''