In my last post, I reported some of the results of the USDA’s 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey which is part of the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The 2007 Census has given us the first good data on Native American farmers. That’s because in prior surveys the USDA treated reservations as if they were one big farm or ranch rather than containing an amalgam of farms and ranches operated by individuals and families.
When compared to other US farmers and ranchers, the typical Native farmer or rancher earns substantially less income. But the typical Native agriculturalists also works more land as compared to non-Natives engaged in agriculture. So why does more land produce less income?The character of the lands involved is one explanation. Most reservations were established on lands deemed unfit for settlers. The soil was poor from the outset. Most Native farmers and ranchers live in New Mexico, Arizona, Montana and Oklahoma and most raise livestock. During the Dust Bowl shallow topsoil blew away and productivity fell even further.
Given their low incomes, one would expect that Native farmers and ranchers receive more government assistance as compared to better off farmers and ranchers. But that is not the case. According to the 2007 Survey, Native farmers and ranchers are less likely to get government assistance as compared to non- native farmers and ranchers. USDA explains this by asserting that Indigenous Americans involved in agriculture have tended not to grow those crops – like corn, wheat and cotton - which receive the bulk of subsidy payments. But some Native farmers filed a discrimination lawsuit a decade ago alleging that they have been denied government loans and other help provided to white farmers raising the same crops.
This mirrors discrimination lawsuits pursued for decades by Black farmers and a class action lawsuit undertaken by Hispanic farmers and ranchers.
The 2008 Farm Bill expands assistance and outreach to disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. It is too early to tell, however, whether these provisions will erase the disparity in government assistance between white and non-white farmers and ranchers.
High Country News has published several articles about agriculture on reservations and Indigenous Americans involved in agriculture. Here are links to a couple of them: