Village Earth

USDA Misrepresents Situation of Native American Farmers


On the eve of important White House meeting with Tribal Leaders, USDA press release celebrates increase in Native American Farmers but omits information provided in an earlier report that explained the dramatic increase in the numbers as erroneous. For Immediate Release Village Earth – Nov. 4, 2009 – Today, the USDA issued a press release celebrating the increase in Native American Farmers and Ranchers since their 2002 Census of Agriculture. This comes on the eve an important and highly publicized meeting between the White House and Tribal representatives from across the country.

“In celebration of American Indian Heritage Month the U.S. Department of Agriculture today reported that there are nearly 80,000 American Indian operators on 61,472 farms and ranches across the United States. This represents an 88-percent increase over the number of American Indian farmers USDA counted in 2002.”

Just a week earlier, Village Earth issued a similiar release but provided greater context for the extreme racial disparity that exists in agricultural production on most Native American Reservations. According to Village Earth, “this most recent report by the USDA is a gross misrepresentation of the data, suggesting that the increase is due to greater inclusion and outreach when in fact it is the result of the USDA expanding the sampling area of the Census from Reservations in just three States to Reservations nationwide.” Today’s press release omits information, provided in an earlier USDA report that explained the dramatic increase in the numbers.

“Part of the reason for the dramatic increase in the number of American Indian farmers is a change in the way the 2007 Census of Agriculture counted farm operators on reservations in the Southwestern United States. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducted a pilot program to count American Indian operators on reservations in three states — North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana — rather than simply counting a single reservation as a single farm operation. In 2007, the pilot program was extended throughout the United States. The majority of the increase in the number of American Indian operators occurred in just two states: Arizona and New Mexico, where the count increased from 694 in 2002 to 12,929 in 2007.”

Today’s press release also failed to create a context for the larger picture of the racial disparity in agriculture that exists on most Native American Reservations today. While the USDA is correct to report that there are “nearly 80,000 American Indian operators on 61,472 farms and ranches across the United States,” that number only represent 1.6% of the total farmers and ranchers operating on Native American Reservation today, illustrating that non-native producers dominate on most Native American Reservations. In terms of income, the total value of agricultural commodities produced on Native American Reservations in 2007 totaled over $2.1 Billion dollars, yet, only 16% of that income went to Native American farmers and ranchers. As reported earlier by Village Earth, the unequal land-use patterns seen on Native American Reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native land owners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening them up to non-native farmers and ranchers. Discriminatory lending practices, as argued in court cases such as the pending Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, claim that Native Americans have been denied roughly 3 billion in credit.  Another significant obstacle is the high degree of fractionation of Reservation lands caused by the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887. Over a century of unplanned inheritance under the GAA has created a situation where reservation lands have become severely fractionated. Today, for a Native land owner to consolidate and utilize his or her allotted lands they may have to get the signed approval of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of separate land owners. As a result of this complexity, most Indian land owners have few options besides leasing their lands out as part of the Federal Government’s leasing program. Additionally, historical and racially-based policies by the Federal government have been designed to exclude Native American farmers and ranchers from utilizing their own lands, opening them up to non-natives for a fraction of their far market value.

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