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 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.
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.