Agricultural extension agents help farms succeed. But in Indian Country, they’re scarce.

On the Hopi Reservation, one agent is helping her community grow food. But for how long?

 

Susan Sekaquaptewa made five trips from Kykotsmovi Village on the Hopi Reservation to the Home Depot in Flagstaff, Arizona — a total of nearly 1,000 miles — to buy supplies. She hired a few young local workers, who poured concrete and bent metal tubes until a hoop house, a simplified greenhouse, rose like a ribcage from the desert floor. Then a cold snap blew in, and they framed the walls in 27-degree weather.

Sekaquaptewa is a Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) agent, hired to support Indigenous agriculturalists on tribal land. The program works to develop youth leadership, strengthen agriculture and support tribal communities to become more self-reliant. When Sekaquaptewa started in 2017, she asked locals around Hopi what would advance those goals. Workshops on growing food topped the list: information on pest control, starter seeds, soil fertility. A hoop house, she thought, would be a good teaching tool. She picked a spot behind a local school building overlooked by a silver Chinese elm and a protective rim of golden mesas and got to work.

But even as the structure rose, its future was uncertain: The FRTEP program is underfunded, with what little money it has distributed through competitive grants. That creates instability — and agriculture initiatives need constancy for success.     

In her agricultural work with the Hopi Tribe, Susan Sekaquaptewa has worked to “honor and support what’s here,” she said.
Irina Zhorov

IN 1914, THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT created the Cooperative Extension Service, a network of educators tasked with disseminating the agricultural research and technology developed at land-grant universities to farmers in need of it. The extension agents answered to the universities but were embedded in nearly every U.S. county, helping to increase farm productivity and spur rural economic development. Yet they rarely made it to Indigenous communities.

Even though agricultural assistance is often guaranteed by treaty, few agricultural programs existed in Indian Country by the mid-1900s. In the 1980s, tribal advocates asked Congress to level the playing field. The 1990 Farm Bill created what would become the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program, a parallel program specifically for Native farmers.

In the first year, Congress allocated $1 million to fund 12 offices. An average grant — about $80,000 — covers agents’ salaries and benefits, but leaves little for programming. Since its inception, FRTEP’s budget has risen to about $3 million per year, supporting 36 offices, mostly in the West. Despite the progress, an analysis from 2016 found that, on average, each reservation has just 0.1 agents, compared to three extension agents for every county. Though some communities find other ways to secure an agent — perhaps through their tribal colleges or universities, which receive separate funding — many lack agents altogether.

Yet Indian Country clearly needs extension agents. On average, Native-led farms are twice the size of other farms in the U.S., but their sales are three times smaller.

Erin Eustace, right, and another worker place a beam while constructing a hoop house on the Hopi Reservation.
Irina Zhorov

ERIN EUSTACE, 21, SAWED two-by-fours for the hoop house walls, undaunted by the cold snap’s frigid temperatures. Jacketless, with wind-whipped hair, she seemed warmed solely by her enthusiasm for the day’s work. During a short break, she said that having Sekaquaptewa as the local agent has been transformative, because she is able to navigate Hopi norms and polity.

All extension agents, county or tribal, respond to local needs — everything from teaching ranchers to deal with invasive weeds on large commercial operations to helping families grow backyard vegetables. But the program only works when communities trust agents. An agent might need to advise clients to change some long-held habits, whether planting practices, chemical use or financial recordkeeping.

“If I don’t trust you, why would I change everything based on your word, when it’s my business and my home that’s at stake?” as Janie Simms Hipp, CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, put it.

“If I don’t trust you, why would I change everything based on your word, when it’s my business and my home that’s at stake?” 

Sekaquaptewa is Hopi, from Kykotsmovi Village. The Hopi Tribe’s long agricultural history is grounded in desert-adapted dry farming, so instead of challenging well-established practices, Sekaquaptewa has worked to “honor and support what’s here,” she said. At the same time, she was eager to “bring in other information that might be relevant in a good way.” She started teaching irrigated organic gardening, for example.

“I feel like if a stranger comes and tries to teach things like this, it’s not going to be taken too well,” said Eustace.

But people listened to Sekaquaptewa, Eustace said. She recalled a workshop in which Sekaquaptewa, speaking Hopi, compared seeds to a woman, something that resonated with attendees, because women are traditionally Hopi seed keepers. A county agent unfamiliar with the tribe would likely not be as effective, Eustace said.   

Still, county agents have one advantage Sekaquaptewa lacks: They are funded by a relatively stable mix of federal, state and local monies, while FRTEP agents like Sekaquaptewa have to reapply for competitive federal grants every four years. “We’ve had to fight for everything that we currently still have: land-base recognition, resources that they promised tribal people,” Sekaquaptewa said. “We also have to fight each other for that pot of money.” And in the last grant cycle, 20% of projects lost funding.

“Indian Country has been carpet-bagged to death,” said Joe Hiller, who previously oversaw Arizona’s tribal extension programs. “So building this community trust is so doggone important that losing a program means, by my estimation, you’re not ever gonna get it back.”

Tribal nations in Arizona, which receive the largest chunk of FRTEP funding, are comparatively lucky: They have seven offices, many of which have been winning grants for decades. The University of Arizona, which manages the agents, also has a novel hierarchy that makes it easier for the director of tribal extension programs, Trent Teegerstrom, to advance agents’ and tribes’ interests. In other states, tribal agents can be isolated, both geographically and in terms of resources.

Jurisdictional and tax issues have also long complicated the matter between tribal and local governments. “(States and counties) don’t feel an obligation to take care of it,” said Hipp.

“A pie can only be divided up so much, and if you’re going to invite more people to come eat pie, then the pie needs to be bigger. And they haven’t done that.”

In its own documents, the USDA has called FRTEP funding levels “not sufficient,” noting that the competitive grant cycle created “instability and inconsistency in marginalized, impoverished and underrepresented communities.” Teegerstrom says some tribal leaders have told him they don’t apply for FRTEP funding for fear of potentially defunding others tribes’ meaningful initiatives. “The competitive cycle is definitely shortsighted,” he said.   

In 2018, Hipp asked Congress to reconsider the grant system and increase program support to $10 million, as originally envisioned in the 1980s. Instead, the 2018 Farm Bill opened FRTEP monies to tribal colleges and universities.

Ross Racine, who helped establish FRTEP and retired after years with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, says the move further weakened the program. “A pie can only be divided up so much, and if you’re going to invite more people to come eat pie, then the pie needs to be bigger. And they haven’t done that.”

Sekaquaptewa has not yet gone through a grant cycle. She holds the thought of it at bay, focusing instead on the work at hand. For now, she’s building more garden beds, planning more workshops and rebuilding youth programs like 4H. She’s trying to position Hopi within a broader push for food sovereignty. And the community has responded: When Eustace started attending Sekaquaptewa’s workshops, in 2017, she was the only young person there. Now, more are getting involved. The youth show older attendees new techniques, while elders share dry-farming protocols.

“It’s cool to see that,” Eustace said.   

Irina Zhorov is a writer and producer, focusing on the natural world and how we live in it. She's working on a novel set in Soviet Siberia. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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