Everything You Need to Know About the Native American Agriculture Fund’s Plans to Shepherd its $266M Portfolio

Vince Logan (Osage), CFO/CIO of NAAF, and Janie Simms Hipp, President and CEO of NAAF and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma (Photos Courtesy NAAF for Native Business Magazine)

The Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF) is moving closer to delivering on its mandate to distribute a trust fund of some $266 million. NAAF is now accepting applications through September 30 from eligible organizations. 

The people placed in charge of stewarding these funds and ensuring that the grant process is as transparent, fair and complete as possible are already respected for their distinguished service to Indian Country. 

Janie Simms Hipp, President and CEO of NAAF and citizen of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, says that her first priority was to put an operation together in just a few years from the results of an 18-year-old lawsuit. “Porter Holder, one of our trustees, says this is like we ordered a tractor and were called that it was ready to be picked up, and we went to the tractor dealership, whereupon they brought out a box full of parts!” 

So, Hipp and her staff are using that “box of parts” provided by the establishment of NAAF in 2018 to construct a fund that will provide resources for business assistance, agricultural education, technical support, and advocacy services to support Native farmers and ranchers. 

To offer some background: The Native American Agriculture Fund, the United States’ single largest philanthropic organization devoted solely to serving the Native American farming and ranching community, was established as part of the Keepseagle vs. Vilsack lawsuit settlement. This case established that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had discriminated against Native agriculture interests in loan programs and servicing as far back as 1981. NAAF’s fund is the final piece of the settlement, and the organization has 20 years to distribute its funds. In 2018, the court directed that the remaining approximately $266 million be distributed through a newly created fund. Grants will be given to 501(c)3 organizations, educational organizations, CDFIs and Native CDFIs, and Tribal governments.

To accomplish this mission, Hipp and the NAAF board have brought on some stellar talent. For example, Vince Logan (Osage), the recently appointed chief financial officer and chief investment officer of NAAF, has also garnered much respect for his work. “We at NAAF are truly blessed to have Vince join us as CFO/CIO,” says Hipp. “He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in financial issues and investment management. In his prior roles throughout Indian Country he has made a difference and served us all well.” 

Logan, who served as the Special Trustee for American Indians at the U.S. Department of the Interior, used his financial and regulatory background to reaffirm the Office of the Special Trustee’s position as a leader in government accountability, Indian Trust reform, financial education and Interior oversight mandates. “His depth of knowledge and expertise will serve Native farmers and ranchers and the Native agriculture community more broadly as NAAF begins its work and delivers on the promise of NAAF,” says Hipp.

And, NAAF’s director also has had a distinguished career in the field of Native agriculture and food sovereignty. Among other accomplishments to support Native American agriculture over the past 30 years, Hipp was the founder and first director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) at the University of Arkansas School of Law. The first of its kind nationally, IFAI focuses on governance, strategic and technical policy assistance, and Native youth and professional education, all to support and sustain Indigenous food systems. 

A growing movement across Indian Country is empowering food sovereignty, which as Hipp says isn’t just one-size-fits-all; various Tribes and communities have various foods, food systems and agricultural environments.

“We fed ourselves for millennia before contact, and we need to unlock the potential of our communities through agriculture, food and fiber production, feeding ourselves and others, building strong community economies through agriculture, and protecting our lands, natural resources and our traditional foods,” she says.

Then, there’s the matter of access to credit. “That is the core reason why this case was filed in the first place and which ultimately led to the creation of NAAF,” she says.

For example, Hipp notes a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report on agriculture credit in Indian Country. But, she says, “the report authors confessed they didn’t have a good handle on unmet need for agricultural credit.”

Hipp says that she can identify “at least 10 Tribes right now who would love to build out new meat processing plants. The price tag on one of those operations can easily reach $8 million just to get it built, equipped and the doors open.”

Installing just one production field with irrigation equipment can run more than $3 million — which is the fiscal value that the GAO report identified as unmet need throughout all of Indian Country. “The farmers and ranchers I have been talking to over the years who’ve told me about their equipment needs will tell you that a few of them aggregating their regional need can easily top more than $3 million of unmet need in a heartbeat,” Hipp said. 

“None of these areas is simple; all are complex and have many moving parts,” she added. That’s just one reason why NAAF has been reaching out to American Indian agriculturists, so the organization can identity where the fund can do the most good.

In addition to conducting surveys and outreach, she says, “Anyone who knows me, knows that my door is open all the time and I love nothing better in life than talking to farmers and ranchers and ag business owners, and then finding every way I can possibly find to help solve their problems or challenges,” says Hipp. “That has been the essence of my work for over 30 years. If we don’t hear from Native farmers and ranchers and ag business owners continually and frequently, and they don’t tell us exactly what they need, then there is no way we can build toward success.”

And, Hipp is optimistic that Indigenous agriculture is headed toward achieving that success. “By working inter-Tribally and in assisting each other in reaching mutually held goals, we can accomplish many things,” she says. “The NAAF funds cannot possibly solve every problem, but it does hold the promise for being a catalyst, and we can create momentum by leveraging with others to bring more positive movements to bear in our communities.”

One point that Hipp stresses is who can access the grants: “The Trust Agreement says we must work through 501c3s, CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions), educational institutions and Tribal governments,” she says. “We are also allowed to work in business assistance, technical support, educational areas and advocacy. We are prohibited from providing a grant or a loan directly to an individual Native farmer or rancher, but we can work through others.”

So, although Hipp says that it’s important for Indigenous agriculturists to understand the terms of the trust agreement, “I won’t rest until I know that what we are doing is effectuating change that impacts Native farmers and ranchers as well as agricultural business owners.”   

Most importantly, though, Hipp says, “Agriculture can and does create jobs — not just producing food but doing all those other things that help farmers and ranchers and food people do what they do well, whether that is getting food into our communities or into markets.” And, thanks to NAAF’s carefully chosen executive staff, the funds provided to support Native agriculture will be well protected and ready to serve Indian Country farmers, ranchers and agricultural business for the next two decades.