Carly Griffith Hotvedt’s Cherokee ancestors planted what is called “the three sisters:” corn, beans and squash. The squash leaves provided shade and protection for the soil, and the beans, as nitrogen fixers, replaced nitrogen in the soil so corn and squash could draw it out. It kept the soil healthy and is something members of her tribe continue to do across the Ozarks and Prairie Plains today. “We have that seven-generations perspective—what are we doing to make sure that what we have now is either the same or better for that seventh generation down the road,” she said.

Many regenerative agricultural practices have their roots in Indigenous agriculture. In the Southwest, Hopi farmers plant their crops in the shade to shield them from the hot sun and to conserve water. In California, the Pauma tribe uses no-till farming and plants shade-giving cover crops to sequester carbon in the soil. Indigenous peoples around the world have maintained food biodiversity, which is increasingly understood to ensure food security on a heating planet.

“Tribal producers have different kinds of operations—some have large-scale commercial operations—but it’s safe to say Indigenous peoples, based on our relationship with the land, have different perspectives as far as what agriculture looks like, and what steps need to be taken for sustainability and resilience,” Griffith Hotvedt said.  

But she added that Indigenous producers are often overlooked in federal conservation programs. Many Native farmers don’t hold formal titles to their land as individuals, which makes it difficult to access credit, disaster relief and conservation funding. “We want to reduce those barriers and really see an injection of support for Indian Country agriculture,” she said.

Supporting sustainable agriculture practices could help the U.S. meet its climate goals. Farms make up about 40 percent of all U.S. land, according to the most recent census, and agriculture accounts for about 11 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Griffith Hotvedt is the associate director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI), which studies how the Farm Bill—a nearly trillion-dollar omnibus bill that goes before Congress roughly every five years and which covers everything from farm subsidies to climate resilience to food-assistance programs—can address those challenges.

IFAI is a research, administration and policy partner to the Native Farm Bill Coalition, a group formed in 2017 of more than 220 tribes and tribal organizations that is pushing for reforms to support Indigenous farmers as they adapt to a changing climate. The group advocated for and won 63 provisions to the 2018 Farm Bill, including increased access to credit and support for Indigenous conservation methods; Griffith Hotvedt said that the coalition hopes to expand on those gains in the 2023 bill.

She spoke with Nexus Media News about what the Farm Bill means for sustainable agriculture and farmers adapting to a heating planet. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are your top priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill?

We’re looking for tribal parity, meaning tribes would have more direct access to programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more of a say in how funds are allocated. We also want more opportunities to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge within those programs.

What’s the climate case for supporting Indigenous producers?

Native Americans have varied operations, productions and perspectives as far as what our responsibilities [to the environment] are. Some tribes have large-scale commercial operations and very intensive management practices versus soil-profile and climate-driven knowledge.

That said, it’s a safe general assertion that Indigenous peoples, based on our relationship with the land, have different perspectives as far as what sustainable agriculture is. Land isn’t just a commodity.

When you look at the Census of Agriculture, we’re seeing a decrease, generally, in the number of farms across the United States. That’s either because people are getting out of farming because it’s too hard to make a living, or they are consolidating.

That’s not true for Indian Country. Our tribal producers have seen an increase in the number of farms and a decrease in the average number of acres per farm. In the 2012 census, [they reported] just over 1,000 acres, on average. In 2017, it was closer to 970 acres. Smaller operations provide a lot more intimate insight into the land you’re working.

We want farmers to make money, but there’s also an understanding that you don’t work in a manner that’s extractive. We have a seven-generations perspective: What are we doing to make sure that what we have now is either the same or better for that seventh generation down the road? 

What are some climate-related challenges that might be specific to Native farmers?

There are critical needs in Indian Country that are not being met due to historical exclusion and discrimination. There are challenges related to staffing and infrastructure because a lot of reservations are very remote. That can make it difficult for producers to access the information that they need to sign up for programs. 

For example, I recently learned of a tribal producer in Montana who submitted a request to have the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) sign off on a contract to allow him to enroll his land in a USDA conservation program. He submitted the request in 2019. The BIA approved it in April 2022. That delay to get enrolled in a program is unacceptable.

The way that tribes and tribal producers hold [titles to] land can also be very different from the way non-Native producers hold land. That can be a barrier to accessing disaster-relief programs and credit. We want to reduce those barriers and really see an injection of support for Indian Country agriculture.

How can the Farm Bill support climate-resilient farming practices?

We see opportunities in conservation title [programs that incentivize farmers to implement resource-conserving practices] and in disaster-relief programs. We’re seeing an increased reliance on the latter as we have more volatile weather patterns that are tied to climate change. 

We have been engaging in production agriculture and using traditional ecological knowledge —observing the seasons and climate change, knowing when to plant, knowing when to harvest—since time immemorial. Those actions have been shown to be much more climate-friendly than common and more-intensive practices.

The last Farm Bill created a vehicle for traditional ecological knowledge opportunities to be recognized and eligible for conservation activity funding. Right now, only tribes are eligible to specify what TEK [traditional ecological knowledge] means to them. [That determines] what practices get funding. We want to see individual tribal producers be able to utilize those programs, too. 

We’d also like to see better use of the Agricultural Resource Management Planning tool. Agricultural resource management plans are a critical tool for tribes to assert their tribal sovereignty and prioritize their own traditional cultural beliefs and considerations when it comes to land management. That tool has been widely underutilized. If a tribe has an Agricultural Resource Management Plan in place, it can pair very well with USDA conservation programs and other program funding opportunities. 

What do you think is possible if the Farm Bill incorporates the coalition’s proposals?

The Farm Bill is not going to solve every single issue that arises with food or access, but the goal is to make sure that we’re not excluded from these programs simply because of the fact that we are tribes or tribal producers. For too long, we have been excluded or discriminated against either through systemic measures or through on-the-ground individual interactions. 

If we can create opportunities through the Farm Bill, we’ll see a resurgence and an increase of Indigenous agriculture and we can continue to provide an alternative to traditional, mainstream, Eurocentric agricultural practices.

[Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative advocated for changes to the Farm Bill. It is the research and policy partner for the Native Farm Bill Coalition and does not engage in advocacy.]

This article was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations and is part of Covering Climate Now’s ‘Food & Water’ joint coverage week. Nexus Media News is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering climate change. Follow us @NexusMediaNews.