Tribe renews push to farm reservation land

John OÕConnell/Capital Press Larry Teton stands on land on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which are working to get more of their own members involved in farming or ranching.

'It's our land, so we should be getting the benefit from it'

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

Larry Teton makes a living running about 80 head of cattle on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation ranch land he inherited from his father.

Teton's daughter runs about 150 head, and his 21-year-old grandson has also expressed an interest in agriculture.

Officials with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes say Teton's family is the exception. Though the reservation encompasses vast expanses of farm and ranch land in southeastern Idaho, they say few members have the capital or knowledge to put it in production, so most lease out their land.

To reverse the trend, the tribes offer several programs to help members get a foothold in agriculture.

"A lot of these Indians, they've got the land but they just don't have the know-how," Teton said. "They lease their land out and get a chunk of money, but they could be running their own land instead of throwing it down the drain."

Teton, who grows his own hay for his cattle, has one of the few large tribal-run ranching operations. The tribes raise and sell discounted hay to assist the smaller ranchers.

"A lot of Indian boys, they've got horses and a few head of cows," Teton said.

The reservation's 110,000 acres of farmland generate more than $75 million per year in crops and create 1,000 jobs, according to an August 2010 study commissioned by the tribes.

"It's real simple. It's our land, so we should be getting the benefit from it," said Delbert Farmer, a tribal business leader and a former chairman.

On Aug. 17, Tribal Chairman Nathan Small addressed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about the need for the tribes to take a larger role in agriculture.

"Lack of capital has historically prevented the tribes from farming our own lands," Small said. "Prime farmland, cheap water, low lease rates and lack of competitive bidding on reservation lands have made non-Indian farmers on the reservation some of the richest individuals in the state."

Small told the committee tribal members "currently farm some 550 acres on the reservation in partnership with other farmers. Our goal is to use revenue from this partnership as capital to purchase the equipment needed -- irrigation pivots, pumps, etc. -- to eventually farm our own land for ourselves."

He said the tribes and individual landowners created the Fort Hall Landowners Alliance to provide education about the Bureau of Indian Affairs leasing process and to encourage landowners to draw wills to prevent reservation lands from being split up.

The tribes established a credit program several decades ago to help American Indians secure agricultural loans.

"They use the lease income as collateral to help with startup money," said credit officer Angie Hernandez, adding the program has "bloomed into other things because we just don't have the farmers like we used to."

Seeking to get the next generation of members into farming, tribal education department head Larry Murillo has overseen the expansion of an agricultural scholarship, which now provides tuition assistance for five college students.

"We're going to step that up," Murillo said.

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