American Indian farmers

The Seattle Times writes about American Indian farmers, who tend to have more land than the average farmer but less income. They are also less likely to receive government aid intended to help struggling farmers.

Agriculture officials explain that the lack of aid is partly because American Indians have shied away from growing corn, wheat, and other subsidized crops. But some American Indian farmers have filed a discrimination lawsuit, claiming they have been denied government loans and other help given to white farmers raising the same animals and crops. Relatively little, however, was known about American Indian farmers until the most recent agricultural census because the U.S. Department of Agriculture had counted all farms on a reservation as one.

The census found stark differences between the nation’s 80,000 American Indian farmers and those of other races. The typical American farm is 400 acres, but American Indian farmers average about 1,400 acres. Many are ranchers and most live in the desert Southwest, Oklahoma, or Montana.

Their farms average about $40,000 a year in sales, compared to $135,000 for farms overall. But relatively few get government aid – only 13%, compared to 39% of white farmers.

American Indian farmers are often limited by the types of soil found on their reservations, said Ross Racine, director of the Billings, Mont.-based Intertribal Agriculture Council, which represents 84 tribes from Florida to Alaska and California to Maine. With corn, wheat and other subsidized crops unlikely to thrive on their farms, many have turned to raising livestock.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this fall that he is committed to resolving the class action lawsuit, and settlement talks are in the works.

Federal officials said they’ve already taken steps to get more money to American Indian farmers who need it. The Farm Service Agency for nearly a decade has paid for a National Tribal Development Association program that works with farmers in 250 tribes in 28 states, helping them apply for loans.

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