In the early 20th century, the Dawes Act parceled tribal lands into individual plots and gave them to Indigenous peoples in an attempt to undo the reservation system, granting each family 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. Still, allotted lands were often unsuitable for agriculture, and the effort imposed a culture of farming and ranching onto nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, says Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.
“You had 160 acres that you were supposed to stay on; that just didn’t work,” says Stainbrook, who also sat on the Indian Country Extension Commission. “They put these folks out there called boss farmers to train Indigenous people to be farmers and ranchers. They were the early extension agents for Indian Country.”
The idea of boss farmers came from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), says Joe Hiller, co-chair of the commission and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. No more than two agents were employed by any reservation agency. Hiller’s father was a boss farmer on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota after the Second World War. He reported to the BIA superintendent, and was tasked with hiring, firing, and training Indigenous producers—separate from South Dakota State University, a land-grant university founded in 1881.
Some boss farmers became contract employees at the land-grant universities, says Trent Teegerstrom, associate director for tribal extension programs at the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“When those contracts ended, the universities didn’t have any funds, so the jobs went away,” according to Teegerstrom, who also co-chaired the Indian Country Extension Commission.
Extension agents were eventually phased out and replaced by welfare workers as the BIA began prioritizing social services instead of resource management programs toward the end of the 1950s.
“Then there was this weird thought that the county extension agents were going to supply the tribes with those services under the regular extension program,” Stainbrook says.
The presumption was that the Cooperative Extension Service, although controlled by predominantly white county commissioners, would offer the same treatment to Indigenous farmers. Unsurprisingly, that did not come to pass.
“Our producers weren’t able to access those extension agents, whether it was outright discrimination because of our ZIP codes, names, or tribal affiliations,” says Holden. They were “unable to use services that were directly funded by land-grant institutions, many of which got land that was either seized or sold.”
These extension agents were also ill-equipped to address Indigenous producers and their complicated problems, lacking knowledge of traditional food systems. Indian Country was essentially left on its own to deal with the agricultural hardships incurred by federal anti-Indian policies.
Then, in 1990, Congress agreed to fund the first-ever FRTEP provision, initially called the Extension Indian Reservation Program. But the program has been chronically underfunded, without accounting for decades worth of inflation, a fact that has left tribes competing for limited resources.
Fighting for an Equitable Future in the Next Farm Bill
In addition to increasing financial resources for tribal extension services, the Indian Country Extension Commission wants to do away with FRTEP’s current competitive four-year grant model. In its report, it requested that the USDA: “Eliminate the competitive nature of the FRTEP funding and instead use permanent funding similar to County Extension programs.” The current FRTEP programs would be grandfathered in and a host of new extension agents would be added throughout the country.
“Native Americans were not getting equal access to services from USDA.”
“[Competition] is the absolute worst impediment to these programs,” says Stainbrook. “You’re out there competing with your colleagues, basically.”
Thirty-six FRTEP applications were filed in the last grant cycle in 2017, all of which were approved, according to a NIFA public affairs specialist. But that funding isn’t guaranteed each cycle. Land-grant universities, including the 1994 tribal colleges, are both eligible and vying for the same money, potentially knocking other applicants out of the candidate pool to their fund agents.
“[FRTEP agents] are an incredible resource,” says Sarah Vogel. “If their efforts could be replicated and adequately funded across the U.S., it would be such a remarkable boost for Native American producers and great food for the rest of us.”
Vogel was an appointee to the Indian Country Extension Commission because of her background defending the rights of Native farmers as a part of the North Dakota Nine amid a groundbreaking federal class-action lawsuit, which she wrote about in her recent memoir, The Farmer’s Lawyer.
She says, “Native Americans were not getting equal access to services from USDA,” and sees a similar pattern of inequality in FRTEP. Vogel was reminded of that when her colleagues at the Council for Native American Farmers and Ranchers repeatedly sought to fix the tribal extension program decades ago.