the future of indigenous agriculture

posted August 6, 2013

A great piece by greenhorns ally Kelsey Jones-Casey, an Independent Researcher and Consultant at Isthmus & Strait whose work focuses on the intersections between land rights, sustainable livelihoods and social equity.


I disdain flying for countless reasons:  the armrest wars, flight delays, and cold feet in the draft. But a small part of my people-loving introverted self loves flying because, as we all know, one meets the most interesting people in the air.

Three things happened on my trip home from the Land and Poverty Conference in Washington DC to Seattle, Washington this spring. Firstly, my first flight was delayed, canceled, and finally rebooked.  That resulted in me flying the first leg of my journey with (and sleepily getting lost in the airport with) my favorite community land rights protector, Rachael Knight.  Hurray!  I was immediately less infuriated with the situation.  And lastly, the most wonderful thing of all: I was seated next to Janie Simms Hipp on the plane. And I forgave the airline completely.

Janie Simms Hipp (Chickasaw Nation) recently left an interesting career as a Senior Advisor for Tribal Affairs at USDA, and Director of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations to help launch the first-ever Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Fayetteville, Arkansas. She is (obviously) incredibly smart, but she is also near-to-bursting with enthusiasm and new strategies for supporting indigenous youth in agriculture.

This month I interviewed Janie about her work to support and promote indigenous agriculture in Indian Country. Here is what she had to say:

An Interview with Janie Simms Hipp

[Janie Simms Hipp] I come from a very rural area of the country; I’m Chickasaw and I grew up deep in Choctaw areas of Oklahoma.  We had lots of challenges in our area the entire time I was growing up: high unemployment, remoteness, and poverty. But we were surrounded by beautiful forests, lands, waters and people.  Working with farming and ranching and “food people” has always been what I loved to do, even when I was young.  I was put on this earth to do this work.  I found it, or should I say it found me, early in my career and I’ve never strayed too far from doing agricultural law.

[Kelsey Jones-Casey] What is your personal mission statement? What do you hope to achieve? 

[JSH] I don’t think I have ever sat down and identified a “personal mission statement.”  If I had to come up with one quickly I would probably say that it is “earn your place on the planet”!  I know that might sound like a pretty bossy thing to say, but each one of us has a reason why were are here, and we need to find that reason, and get about the business of doing good.  There are so many important issues out there and people are so wonderful – and if you truly want to you, you can help make this place better.  Or you can complain.  I do NOT choose the latter.

I came back to Fayetteville, Arkansas and the University of Arkansas School of Law to help our Dean Stacy Leeds –  who is the only Native dean of a law school in the US at this time – launch this initiative which truly encompasses both our passions.

We hope to advance stability in our communities through food and agriculture and sustainable use of our natural resources to create stable economies.  We need to improve our nutrition in our communities and the best way to do that is to empower our people to not only take control of their own food choices, but to grow more food closer to home.

[KJC] What/who motivates you?

[JSH] What motivates me is our young people.  While I do a lot of work with adults throughout the country and throughout Indian Country, I can’t help but be focused on what our young Native people need to succeed. Indian youth in agriculture are quite simply our future.  We must help them get the start they need to be the next generation of food producers for our communities and we must make sure their educational opportunities are vast.  We need them to succeed and we need to equip them to do so.

[KJC] Tell me some wonderful things about what indigenous youth are doing in agriculture!

[JSH] I didn’t realize until a year ago or so that the national Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization (which provides classroom-based high school and collegiate agriculture education programs) has over 12,000 Native FFA students in over 200 chapters throughout the United States that are actively involved their chapters.  When I heard that it floored me!

These young people are already engaged in agricultural education and doing all sorts of cool things on the ground – from sponsoring farmers markets and community gardens, to feeding elders, to working with livestock, to training to be veterinary technicians, to planning community response to animal disease outbreaks, etc. If we could find ways to support these young people who have already expressed an early interest in food and agriculture, then just think what we’d have on our hands in 10 years!

Its finding out about things like that that keep me going and keep me excited.  I was honored to participate with national FFA in their 2011 Native Celebration activities, and I continue to help them find ways to support these Native youth involved in food and agriculture.

There are only around 2 million people across the entire United States who are actively involved in agriculture (Here I mean growing food for sale. If you sell $1,000 or more in annual sales you are counted as being a farmer, according to the Agricultural Census).  There are about 80,000 individual Indian Country farmers and ranchers (according to 2007 Census data, which we believe severely under-counted). The Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has issued a challenge: that we need to launch 100,000 new farmers every year in the United States. I just captured ¼ of that goal just through the Native FFA youth!  How wonderful is that?

[KJC] What are the biggest challenges in Indian Country today in regards to agriculture?

[JSH] I think that nation after nation, community after community have tried this magical equation of “feeding ourselves,” but to be successful it truly requires deliberate planning, contemplation and a lot of hard work.  We can’t do it if we ignore the business side of things.  Even if you are doing nothing more than a back yard garden, a farmers market or community supported agriculture in your local community, you have to have a plan.  You have to plan what you are growing next season, how you are going to get the seed in the ground, how you will make sure it has the water it needs, and how you will harvest and put it up for future use.  The same thing applies if you are raising animals for food.  It all requires a plan of some sort and if you are trying to do it as a business, feed others outside your family, and create a stream of income for your family or your community, then you better for sure have a business plan.

The same holds true for “rule of law.” Every nation knows that in order to have a thriving food and agriculture sector, they need a functioning rule of law.  Making sure Indian Country is deliberate in that context is really important for the success and continued growth of our presence in food and agriculture.

[KJC] Is land access/ownership a challenge in Indian Country?

[JSH] Land access and land use are in many ways big challenges in Indian Country due to high levels of fractionation in land ownership.  This has happened over a long period of time and is a challenge to anyone trying to aggregate enough acreage to have a viable farm or ranch operation.  So yes: land access/ownership can be a challenge.  But it is not insurmountable.  But it is legally challenging, that is for sure.  There are many very smart people around Indian Country focusing like a laser beam on the issues related to land access/ownership and land fractionation, because it has gotten so bad in our communities.  But there are also things we can do individually to make things better.

What I think is most important, moving forward, is to make sure our youth have access to land that they can use to build their food operations.  Everyone in the entire country will eventually have land access/ownership challenges unless we all start paying attention to how land is passed from generation to generation.  Land fractionation is an issue in many communities around the country we know it is a significant challenge in Indian Country. But it will eventually be a roadblock to anyone building independent food businesses.  If you don’t have a will, a trust, or a plan for business succession to the next generation, then I have to ask why are you making it so hard for your kids and grandkids?  For everyone my age, it is a moral responsibility. We have to make sure the people coming behind us have what they need to succeed.  There are communities that find it uncomfortable, or have difficulty due to cultural reasons, to talk about passing. We all will. We can either leave a mess for our children and grandchildren, or we can try to do our best to give them what they need.

[KJC] How has your move from DC back home to Arkansas informed your perspective/approach to these issues?

[JSH] What informed my perspective was working in DC for a period of time.  I became even more committed to the importance of creating strong, sustainable business-related approaches to this work. When I came back home, it was a great relief – – to be able to be back home with my family and to shift my perspective closer to the ground, where things actually happen.  While DC is important in terms of the policy perspective, the real action is here and it is a lot more fun to be on the ground!

[KJC] Anything else that you would like to share?

[JSH] I think that every Tribe in the US needs to know their own Tribe’s traditional foods and traditions related to foods, medicinals, and other culturally-important aspects of feeding ourselves.  I believe we can be, in all places, engaged in different aspects of this wonderful arena of “feeding ourselves and others.”

​This interview originally appeared on Isthmus & Strait under the title Serendipitous Airplane Connections & The Future of Indigenous Agriculture: An Interview with Janie Simms Hipp on July 26, 2013. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.