Dianna Hunt
Indian Country Today

A South Dakota rancher and former head of the Intertribal Agriculture Council has been tapped as the first Indigenous person to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency.

Zach Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, joins more than a half-dozen Native people appointed by President Joe Biden’s administration for top government positions.

Ducheneaux and his family raise cattle and horses on the DX Ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north-central South Dakota.

"What Indian Country has been doing in agriculture holds a lot of promise for solution building and knocking down barriers,” Ducheneaux told AgWeek after his appointment was announced in February. “And I'm very excited for the opportunity to do it within the Farm Service Agency."

He could not be reached by Indian Country Today for additional comment but his appointment drew high praise.

"Zach Ducheneaux's appointment to serve as the Administrator of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) within USDA is nothing short of historic,” said Janie Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and chief executive of the Native American Agriculture Fund.

“Zach has deep knowledge of agricultural lending and the needs of all farmers and ranchers,” Hipp said. “When I heard the news, I was brought to tears. This appointment is a victory for Indian Country but it is also a victory for all of agriculture."

Ducheneaux’s appointment was announced as the U.S. Senate is considering the confirmation of Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico, as Interior secretary. Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, would be the first Native person to lead a Cabinet agency.

New opportunities for farmers, ranchers

The farm agency was formed under a reorganization of the Department of Agriculture in 1994 but its roots reach back to the Great Depression, when the Farm Security Administration was formed in part to help struggling farmers.

Today, the renamed Farm Service Agency oversees farm loans, commodity programs that purchase and deliver commodities where needed, a conservation reserve program to protect the nation’s national resources, and state operations.

Ducheneaux’s appointment was announced by the Biden administration along with the appointment of Gloria Montaño Greene as deputy undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. Montaño Greene was appointed by President Barack Obama as state executive director for the Farm Service Agency in Arizona, where she served from 2014-2017. Most recently, she served as deputy director for Chispa Arizona, a program of the League of Conservation Voters.

“We are honored to have professionals of the caliber of Gloria and Zach join our team,” said Katharine Ferguson, chief of staff for the agriculture secretary. “With their leadership of USDA farm and conservation programs, we will create new market opportunities and streams of income for farmers, ranchers and producers that address climate change and environmental challenges, strengthen local and regional food systems, and lead the world in food, fiber and feed production for export.”

‘First-of-its-kind appointment’

Ducheneaux began work with the Intertribal Agriculture Council in the mid-1990s as a farm advocate, according to the council’s website. In 2003, he was appointed a voting delegate while serving on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council. He was named executive director in 2019.

Formed in 1987, the council is the largest Native agriculture organization in the United States, representing federally recognized tribes and serving about 80,000 Native American producers, according to the USDA.

“As I move on to this next adventure, I’ll be taking all that I have learned about building solutions during my time at the IAC with me to help producers all across the country,” Ducheneaux said in a statement posted on the organization’s website.

Ducheneaux also serves on the board of directors for Project H3LP!, a nonprofit organization founded by his family to provide life lessons and therapy through horsemanship. He and his brothers operate the family ranch.

His daughter, Kelsey Ducheneaux-Scott posted a note about her father’s appointment on the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s website, where she is listed as the council’s program director.

“This first-of-its-kind appointment could not be more fitting, and I have full trust in my father’s ability to share a long overdue perspective in his new role,” she wrote. “He’ll accept the position (not afforded to many) and serve with intention, focus and enthusiasm. His personality will invite collaboration, his passion will ignite change, and his experiences will contribute diversity.”

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Dianna Hunt, of Cherokee Nation descent, is a senior editor at Indian Country Today. She can be reached at diannahunt@indiancountrytoday.com or on Twitter: @DiannaHunt.