In his 60 years on the farm, Milton Sovo Jr. has raised everything from peanuts and wheat to cattle and horses in southwestern Oklahoma. At about 1,100 acres, his spread is about triple the size of the typical U.S. farm.
But Sovo is no tycoon. He farms on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation, where he said the soil remains poor after the Dust Bowl swept away the best topsoil in the 1930s. He can't rely on the land to make a living and has toiled for decades at a second, off-the-farm job.
Sovo is fairly typical among American Indian farmers, who tend to have more land but less income than those of other races. They're also less likely to receive government aid intended to help struggling farmers, according to new data.
Agriculture officials said the lack of aid is partly because American Indians have shied away from 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 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 agency changed that rule for the 2007 census, and data released over the past year has provided the first reliable look at how those farmers are doing.
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. 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 percent, compared to 39 percent of white farmers.
Sovo said that although farming has not enriched him, he is perfectly fine with his way of life because he and other American Indian farmers aren't always trying to make the most money possible off the land.
"We're in a culture that shares the heart and soul of the land with our own being," said Sovo, who has worked for 35 years for a tribal land management and conservation organization to supplement his income. "The land is part of us and we're part of the land. We've always been taught to leave things for our children, use only what we need. We want to make as much money as we can — but we also want to conserve what we have."
For that reason, many American Indian farmers use as few chemicals as possible, he and others said. That limits their choice of crops. Corn, for example, requires a large amount of nitrogen fertilizer.
American Indian farmers also 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.
Of the 56 million acres owned by American Indians, 46 million is used for grazing, Racine said.
Sovo said one reason that American Indian farms tend to be big is that family members often combine their land to try to create stronger operations.
"It's very uphill, it's very hard," Sovo said. "But when you're in agriculture, and when you love the land, it takes a lot of that hard and hurt away."
Other American Indians said some federal workers' practices in lending money have made their lives and work harder than necessary.
George Keepseagle and his wife, Marilyn, are lead plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that was filed against the government in November 1999. The lawsuit contends that American Indian farmers and ranchers lost about $600 million in income from 1981 to 2007 because of discrimination in lending by the Agriculture Department.
"Native Americans are stereotyped, either as drunk or lazy, and not capable of, I guess, competing with white farmers and ranchers," Keepseagle said. "White people farm here, too, but they can get financing and we can't."
The 69-year-old rancher and his 72-year-old wife said they've struggled every year to make a profit and get operating money for their ranch. To get by, they've cashed in life insurance policies and sold nearly 400 of the almost 900 acres they once had on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on the North Dakota-South Dakota border.
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. Program administrator Lou Anne Kling said it has helped American Indian farmers get nearly $37 million in loans in the past decade.
Washington lawyer Joe Sellers, the lead attorney for the farmers in their lawsuit against Agriculture Department, said change must happen throughout the agency, not just at the top. Attorneys have had difficulty determining the extent of possible loan discrimination because civil rights complaints for years were not documented, were destroyed or were not passed on to superiors by Agriculture Department officials in the field, he said.
Keepseagle worries any settlement or policy change would come too late to keep mounting debts from forcing him into foreclosure.
"If that happens, we have basically worked all our life for nothing," he said. "It's devastating."
On the Net:
Intertribal Agriculture Council: http://www.indianaglink.com/
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