Every five years or so Congress enacts a “farm bill.” Those two words are misleading. It’s really a food bill. A trade bill. A jobs bill. An energy bill. An education and research bill. A nutrition bill. A forest bill. And, a this-is-the-kind-of-legislation-that-shows-why-you-should-elect-me bill.
In Washington-speak it’s an “omnibus.” That literally means “an automotive public vehicle designed to carry a large number of passengers.” Omni. Bus. Big. Bus. But in this case that vehicle is legislation for anyone who eats. There are twelve titles in the legislation and the cost is estimated at some $900 billion (depending on which version ends up becoming law).
“Indian Country’s relationship with farming and ranching is a tale of two words,” says “Regaining Our Future,” a report by Janie Simms Hipp and Colby D. Duren for the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. “Our significant relationship with this continent’s plants, animals, and food systems is well established in written historical accounts, oral traditions, and archaeological and anthropological evidence. Most of our early and ancient communities on these lands were deeply involved in complex agricultural systems; some were among the first ‘agricultural researchers,’ domesticating a wide variety of crops used for feeding our communities and families. The history of the foods commonly eaten in the U.S. today, and around the world, can be traced to original Indigenous peoples.”
Of course Congress won’t be spending much time on that point. But nonetheless the farm bill will shape how indigenous people are fed.
The most important section of the bill for Indian Country deals with nutrition programs, representing 80 percent of the bill’s costs. Hipp, speaking at the Native American Journalists Association last week, said many tribal citizens depend such programs to feed people, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That was the original Food Stamps program created in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on hunger. Regaining our Future said nearly 25 percent -- and in many communities more than 50 percent -- of tribal citizens directly access or rely on federal food programs. Hipp added that in some communities that number is as high as 80 percent.
There are two versions of the Farm Bill, one in the House, and another in the Senate. The two houses of Congress will soon negotiate final language through a conference committee and then that compromise bill must be enacted again by each body.
The Senate has a bipartisan approach, especially in provisions of the legislation that deal with Indian Country. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a roundtable in January. That was followed up by a draft from the committee Chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Vice Chairman Tom Udall, D-NM, for the Cultivating Resources, Opportunity, Prosperity and Sustainability for Indian Country Act to strengthen tribal self-governance for U.S. Department of Agriculture programs, such as forestry and nutrition, and update several other key USDA authorizations to better serve tribes and enhance agricultural production in Indian Country. The acronym for the measure is CROPS.
“Food and agricultural production is a driving force for many rural tribal economies,” Hoeven said. “Our legislation supports the growing Native agribusiness industry by expanding resources for Indian Country’s producers, improving the partnership between USDA and Indian tribes, and enhancing tribal self-governance over forestry and nutrition programs. Tribal leaders know that local decision-making often produces the best results. This legislation will expand access to valuable USDA programs and enable tribes to more efficiently develop and manage these agricultural programs and services for their communities.”
“Once every five years, Congress sets the course for federal nutrition, agricultural, and conservation policies in the Farm Bill reauthorization. But for too long, Indian Country has been left out of this process. As the Vice Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, I strongly believe that decisions made by tribes for tribes produce the best outcomes for Native families – especially when it comes to issues of food, agriculture, and community development,” Udall said. “This bipartisan bill reflects Indian Country’s priorities, and is a step in the right direction toward more robust engagement with tribes and Native stakeholders. Native Americans deserve a Farm Bill that will support Tribal families, farmers and ranchers, and opportunity across Indian Country.”
The House version of the Farm bill has support only from Republicans.
The House bill would cut nutrition funding from SNAP. “Some 1.2 million adults would lose SNAP benefits in an average month in 2028 due to the proposed stricter work requirements, CBO estimates, with about 740,000 (or 62 percent) of them in households with children,” writes Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow with the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Another 400,000 households (with almost 1 million people) — almost all of them working families with children — would lose SNAP benefits … All told, more than 1 million households with more than 2 million individuals would be adversely affected — either cut off SNAP or receiving reduced benefits.”
The Senate version includes several tribal priorities, according to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. This includes:
-- Tribal Self-Determination Project for FDPIR Food Procurement – Authorizes $5 million to establish a tribal self-determination procurement demonstration project within the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, which will allow tribal food programs to better serve the nearly 90,000 Native Americans who currently participate in food distribution, including elders and youth.
-- Tribal Advisory Committee on Agriculture and Ranching – Establishes a permanent advisory committee within USDA to provide technical assistance, guidance, and direction on policies implemented by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Office of Tribal Relations.
-- Tribal Colleges and Universities – Enhances grant and research opportunities for tribal higher education by expanding access to nearly $11.3 million in USDA research and extension funding, including the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research Program; the Children, Youth and Families at Risk Program; and the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program. The legislation also provides a technical fix to update the names of the 36 tribal colleges and universities.
-- Tribal Promise Zone Designees – Provides certainty to help ensure the four Tribal Promise Zones, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and the Spirit Lake Tribe, have access to resources and technical assistance from federal agency partners.
-- Promoting Trade for Tribal Producers – Facilitates greater participation of tribal producers on international trade missions.
-- Addressing Food Fraud – Directs the Government Accountability Office to study the impact of foods fraudulently marketed as Native American produced goods.
The Congressional Budget Office says that the House Farm Bill will cost less, reducing nutrition spending by $9.2 billion. But there is a kicker: There will also be a $7.7 billion increase because of new federal administrative costs regarding work and job training.
The Senate would also take a different route on nutrition programs. “This approach reaffirms SNAP’s importance for struggling households that can’t afford a basic diet without its help,” writes Rosenbaum. “Senate provisions improving program oversight and integrity and streamlining program operations would yield a stronger program for the 1 in 8 Americans who use SNAP benefits to afford food.”
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. He wrote in USA Today that “for work-capable adults, if they want to receive benefits, they’ll be expected to work. And if they don’t work, they are self-selecting to remove themselves from the program.”
Simple enough, right? But the work rules means states and tribes will have to set up an administrative structure to make this happen. And in some tribal communities that will also mean that jobs will have to be created because they do not now exist. The House bill requires monthly reporting, the primary driver of the increased administrative costs identified by the Congressional Budget Office. And the result is only two percent would meet the requirement by participating in a training program. The Congressional Budget Office says that amounts to only about 110,000 people in a typical month of 2028. By contrast, it assumes that 24 percent of the group would lose SNAP that year in a typical month, totaling 1.2 million people.
“We are entering a period when Indian Country voices in the Farm Bill debate need to be louder,” says the report by Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. “The Farm Bill provides the resources that will allow us to reach our goals more quickly than in the past. We have access to land and water that we can strategically use to improve the health, well-being and economies of our communities; and we live at a time when people are seeking food that matters.”
Too often Indian farm commodities are sold at the lowest prices, as raw products to the producer, said Zach Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River, board secretary for the Intertribal Agriculture Council. He said that Indian agriculture is already a $3.8 billion industry but with the right changes and incentives it could be larger than tribal gaming. So much of the industry now is under-reported by agricultural researchers.
A resolution enacted by the National Congress of American Indians makes this same point. It calls for “parity” so that tribal programs get a fairer share under the new legislation. “In order to achieve parity, legislation, and funding for USDA programs and services should use tribal demographic data and statistics and directly fund tribal governments at the same level as states and counties for the delivery of programs specified in titles listed in the Farm Bill,” the resolution said. The legislation should “enhance the development of Indian agriculture beyond raw commodities, support infrastructure, research, and education in tribal communities, and improve federal food nutrition programs in Indian Country while providing tribal governments the authority manage these programs.”
The Native Farm Bill Coalition is a joint project of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community's Seeds of Native Health campaign, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the National Congress of American Indians, and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture. The coalition says the bill’s outcome is critical because Indian Country is already so heavily invested in agriculture. “More than half of all income from agriculture in Indian Country – $1.9 billion annually – comes from livestock production,” the coalition said. “Tribes and individual Indian producers need continued and improved access to price support and safety net programs, which meet the unique needs of tribal producers. This will ensure the continued growth and vitality of agriculture businesses during volatile market fluctuations and unpredictable environmental conditions.”
There is a significant gap between Native farmers and all farmers when it comes to federal farm payments. One study showed that all Western farmers were awarded $98,567 while Native farmers were only paid $17,203 (and while managing larger lands).
The Native Farm Coalition also said it’s time to update the definition of “livestock” so that it includes “reindeer,” “caribou,” “elk,” “horses,” or other animals raised or harvested by tribal communities.
The politics of this massive farm bill remain an open question. Last May members of the House Freedom Caucus tanked their own party’s measure in order to take a stand on immigration legislation. And some of those House members are not keen on any nutrition programs. The House will need a majority to pass a bipartisan measure (at least some of the language from the Senate version) or conversely the Senate will need to pass a largely Republican document. And that is unlikely because Republicans have a slim majority and a final measure will need 60 votes to win passage.
The politics of passage are also complicated by the Trump administration’s trade policies and the prospect of increased tariffs on U.S. crops. Wednesday the administration backed off tariffs for the European Union and said there were negotiations in place for the purchase of more natural gas and soybeans. (But China is the big player for soybean purchases.)
There is also a chance that Congress could pass a short-term extension of the farm bill. But that would move the contested issues -- especially the fight over food stamps -- squarely past the election and the prospect of a Democratic party controlled House.
And what about no farm bill? In recent years farm bills have been enacted in five-year cycles. But there are permanent laws enacted in 1938 and 1949 that would again govern. These law set subsidy prices for milk and other crops at prices far above market prices. No bill ensures chaos in the food market something that no politician wants in an election year.
(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports