The Blackfeet Nation is getting some help toward its goals of reforming agriculture on the reservation to make healthy, local food more accessible. Barriers include complicated land management regulations and a lack of processing facilities.
Shortly after a number of dancers in traditional regalia entered the dance arbor during grand entry at North American Indian Days in Browning Friday evening, the Blackfeet celebrated receiving a $1 million federally-funded grant.
Sally Rockey with the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research, or FFAR, awarded the grant, which Montana State University is matching with another $1 million dollars.
“So today I am so honored to be presenting our award for our foundation’s one-hundredth grant,” Rockey said to applause.
The funding will propel five years of research within the tribe’s Agricultural Resource Management Plan.
Project Manager Loren Bird Rattler said the plan touches everything from international trade agreements to incentivizing Native producers to grow more foods in line with the traditional Blackfeet diet, specifically foods rich in omega-3.
“When you look at omega-3 content, we put 40,000 head of cattle into the feeder market every year. By doing so, they become corn-finished,” he explained. “When you corn-finish beef, it eliminates all of the omega-3, which is a natural antidote to the detrimental effects of sugar and fructose.”
Instead, the tribe wants a portion of those cattle to be finished with grass and processed right on the reservation. That would provide meat high in omega-3 content, like many traditional Blackfeet foods.
Montana State University doctoral researcher Jill Falcon Mackin studies indigenous food systems. Her work funded by the grant could help leverage funding for initiatives like the construction of a local USDA meat processing plant. The tribe is currently conducting a feasibility study for such a facility.
“We’re looking at those policy level changes that are going to empower taking back our food system and get those healthy foods delivered first to our children, our seniors, our grocery stores,” Falcon Mackin said, “things that are going to make a real difference in access to healthy foods.”
More local food processing would also be an economic boon for ranchers like Betsey Loring who raises organic beef cattle on the Blackfeet reservation. Loring is opposed to selling into the larger commodity market. That means that, legally, she can only sell a quarter, half or whole cow to locals.
“Because we don’t have a local processing facility, we can’t sell individually, we can’t sell it through a grocery store,” Loring said. “So, some of what Loren is working on is creating that ability for us to process locally, to sell locally. We spend a lot of our time just trying to find a buyer.”
The FFAR and Montana State University grants will also fund diet related research, including how a traditional Blackfeet diet can combat some of the largest killers on the reservation such as diabetes.
The tribe’s Loren Bird Rattler said work will also focus on issues around managing tribal trust land, parcels owned by individuals or tribes that are heavily regulated by the U.S. government.
“A lot of the research we’re doing to begin with is to map the process of those land management functions,” he explained. “So that we can measure the timeline and then do a comparative analysis with Native trust land versus non-Native land to really look at the economic impact around production agriculture on trust land.”
That research will help the tribe craft proposals asking Congress to remove some of the more cumbersome regulations Native trust landowners face, not only making it easier to use the land to its full potential, but potentially making it easier to pass land down to younger generations.
Bird Rattler said the research will hit what he calls the “triple bottom line” of the Agricultural Resource Management Plan.
“If you look at how all these pieces work together, at the very end of the day, it creates the legal infrastructure for the Blackfeet Tribe to control its own destiny,” he said, “economically, through health and nutrition and our most precious resource, our youth.”
Research funded by the grant will begin this year.