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Understanding the barriers to regenerative agriculture on Native land

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Intertribal Agriculture Council are working on a three-year study with Native American ranchers that will track costs, loan terms and soil carbon improvements.

Farmer fixes fence

Thad Rose and his ranch, Rose Ranch, are part of the partnership with the Intertribal Agriculture Council to assess the impact of regenerative agriculture on Native farms and ranches in the Plains region of the U.S. Image courtesy of IAC.

Regenerative agriculture programs have become popular among the big consumer packaged food companies. Danone, General Mills, Organic Valley, PepsiCo, Walmart, Kering, Land O’ Lakes and many others are working within their farmer supply chains to finance, incentivize and understand the transition to regenerative agriculture practices. 

While regenerative ag might be a new buzzword in corporate America, many Native American communities have been using what is now considered regenerative agriculture practices for centuries. Some argue that these practices originated with Native American farming and ranching. But despite their pioneering efforts, the corporate-sponsored regenerative agriculture programs that pay farmers to incorporate these techniques haven’t always benefited Native communities as these programs usually work within a company’s own supply chain and with whatever farmers the company is used to working with.  

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) are teaming up to bring this type of program to Native producers and to understand how the regenerative movement will be different on tribal farms. 

"Our aim at the end is being able to tell a story back to [Native] producers and identify if there are financing solutions that can make the transition to these practices easier and more profitable," said Vincent Gauthier, manager for climate smart agriculture at EDF. "Where can financing really help them be more profitable and make the investments they want to make in regenerative agriculture?" 

Understanding soil and financial concerns on Native American lands

The three-year pilot study will gather data from 14 Native ranchers and farmers in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Montana as they implement regenerative practices such as rotational grazing, cover cropping, no tillage and reduced synthetic fertilizers. The program will collect a baseline soil carbon sample and measure soil carbon, yield, input costs, output revenue, cost of production and many other financial and agricultural data points over the three-year timeline. The study is looking to determine what costs are associated with making these types of investments and what are the exact improvements needed on the land.

According to Gauthier, the end goal is to understand the risks and benefits specific to Native land and then to be able to work with lending institutions and other finance providers to provide loans and other financial products, tailored to support Native producers during the transition.

On the agricultural data side, producers will be collecting soil samples and sending it to a laboratory to do the analysis.

But EDF and IAC are also working with the Minnesota State Farm Business Management Program to collect, benchmark, analyze and educate on the financial data they collect. The farmers will receive $4,000 a year to compensate them for collecting this data.

Credit is a daunting challenge for Native farmers and ranchers

Tomie Peterson, regenerative economies program director at IAC and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, already has a prediction of what EDF and IAC will find in the financial data for the Native producers in the program. 

"Access to long-term credit capital, like land loans, is sometimes difficult, and has been a continued issue that these producers have had to face," she said. "That’s what we're going to see when we look at the financial data."

According to Peterson, the reservations where Native farms and ranches are located are usually credit deserts. The areas lack financial institutions that will give out big loans for the costly agricultural upgrades the producers will need to buy the equipment to transition to regenerative agriculture. 

Access to long-term credit capital, like land loans, is sometimes difficult, and has been a continued issue that Native producers have had to face.

"Agriculture lending is already difficult enough on the normal commercial side, but it's even more difficult when there isn't a credit institution that's providing that sort of loan product in your area," she said. 

Native land rights are also extremely complex, confusing and steeped in bureaucracy, according to Peterson. Sometimes the land is leased, or owned through a government trust or owned by several people in a tribe; one producer might even be operating on multiple people’s land.

"If you look at [Native producers’] operations, they have this different level of bureaucracy that they have to go through because they're operating on a tribal reservation," she said. "They have to go through tribal government, state government and federal government." 

All this just adds to the complexity of getting financing for Native people. 

"Those are the sort of factors that are different for Native producers than every other type of producer," she said. "Which is why we're trying to capture this information specifically for them to understand what benefits and costs may be associated with those sorts of changes." 

Some policies, corporations and programs have already started specifically identifying Native producers. The Biden administration’s USDA Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative works to further incorporate Indigenous perspectives into agriculture. Nutrien, the fertilizer and farm input producer, has partnered with Indigenous communities to bring their historical knowledge to the company. And Indigo Ag, a soil carbon credits project developer, is working with National Indian Carbon Coalition (NICC), which was awarded a two-year grant from the USDA-NRCS Equity Conservation Cooperative Agreements program in 2022 to support bringing carbon farming to Native producers. 

One thing I hear over and over again reporting on agriculture is that each farm or ranch is unique — and what might work for one farm in one location might not for another. So I’m pleased to see that organizations are getting hyperspecific with these regenerative agriculture fact-finding programs to truly understand how the regenerative transition will need to be adapted for each individual farm and farmer. 

Correction: Indigo Ag's description was updated. It is a project developer not itself a market.

This article originally appeared as part of our Food Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability food news in your inbox every Thursday.

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