WHITE CLOUD, Kan. (DTN) -- Timothy Rhodd, chairman of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, explains his tribe's focus on regenerative agriculture began with some dead bees.
A tribal elder who had been living in Oklahoma returned more than a decade ago to retire on the Iowa Tribe's reservation. The elder had eight bee hives at the time that he brought with him.
"A few weeks went by and all of those hives died," Rhodd said. "It was an eye-opening experience for me personally."
Rhodd added, "That was when I first I learned that what we were doing in agriculture was not in alignment with who we are as people -- indigenous producers.
"So, we took a good hard look at that time and began to reverse engineer the whole farming operation and figured out what we were doing wrong."
Since then, the tribe has been moving toward more soil-health practices such as no-till, cover crops and growing at least some crops organically. The tribe also has developed close to 100 bee hives and markets products under the Ioway Bee Farm label including lotions, soaps and candles, as well as honey. The bees have thrived with more pollinator plots around row crops that also have drawn other beneficial insects.
A GREATER ROLE
The Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska -- often called the Ioway Tribe -- now has a chance to play a greater role in the expansion of regenerative farming practices. The tribe, along with some industry partners, was awarded $4.99 million as a USDA Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities project to develop the Center of Excellence for Regenerative Native Agriculture (CERNA). The center is expected to launch next spring with some programs directed to other Native American producers.
"We're hoping CERNA will be that platform that will educate people about their soils," Rhodd said. "I've learned that our soil is just like our skin. That skin needs to be protected."
While called the Iowa Tribe, the 12,000-acre reservation is located in corners of northeast Kansas and southeast Nebraska, right along the Missouri River. The Kansas side is farmed more, while the Nebraska side has more pasture and wooded areas. The tribe's lands are checkerboarded, at least partially because tribal members who owned land and found themselves with unsustainable debts at a local general store were often forced to sell, Rhodd said.
EFFORTS TO RECLAIM LAND
The tribe is one of multiple tribes making more efforts to reclaim land. In recent years, the Iowa Tribe has been trying to buy some of the land back and landowners often demand a premium when the tribe wants to buy a piece of ground.
"When people find out the tribe wants the land, they jack up the price," said Missty Slater, chief of staff for the tribe.
Out of the entire reservation of about 12,000 acres, about 4,000 acres is cropland, Rhodd said. Like a lot of commodity farmers in the 1980s and 90s, the tribe's producers were not profitable. Rhodd said the farm was "chasing yields." Now, Rhodd said the tribe sees greater opportunity by getting premiums for marketing non-GMO grains and developing some niche markets.
CHANGES BEING MADE
"We're getting many different streams of revenue by diversifying our options," Rhodd said.
One of the first major changes was to start conducting soil tests every year. The tribe now does the Haney soil test to measure available nutrients in the soil. Rhodd said the soil tests led to a $90,000 saving just on inputs, mainly by reducing nitrogen application.
Another move was going from anhydrous ammonia applications to using liquid nitrogen and cutting back on fall fertilizer applications.
"So, we've completely switched out and we converted over to liquid nitrogen which is safer for the soil biology," Rhodd said.
The reservation also is now working to fish the Missouri River for Asian carp, an invasive species, then dry and grind up those fish for a natural fertilizer in the farm's vegetable programs. Rhodd said they want to see about the potential of scaling up to use the fertilizer from Asian carp for row crops as well.
CHALLENGE REGARDING SUPPORT
A challenge, Rhodd acknowledged, is that at least some of the tribe's farmers and landowners have not bought into supporting the regenerative practices.
"We're still struggling to get the members to understand what we are doing and we still have some tribal members who are still traditional commodity operations."
Rhodd said he recognized it will take more financial incentives to get farmers on board. "That is what really gets producers to change is the almighty dollar," he said.
CERNA PILOT PROJECT
CERNA will be a pilot project to offer some incentives for producers to adopt more climate-smart practices and ideally gain some premiums. A key part of CERNA will involve buyers agreeing to purchase commodities from Native American farmers who will receive a "Regenified" label for their commodities.
"The markets are there for us if we get the soils healthier," Rhodd said.
Pointing to some of the investments already made by the Ioway Tribe, Rhodd said the tribe's farmers started growing a non-biotech soybean considered high in protein content four years ago. The soybeans go to a tofu manufacturer and this year the price averaged $42 a bushel. "So, on that crop we had no inputs, whatsoever," Rhodd said. "That's one of our goals. If it is for food production, we don't put any chemicals on those crops."
A market now is increasingly developing for a regeneratively-grown livestock feed. Rhodd said the tribe is working with an Arkansas poultry company looking for millions of tons of corn, soybeans and milo. The demand will be larger than the tribe's capabilities to deliver, but Rhodd said connections with other tribes and producers could meet the demand.
"I'm only going to be able to scale up to a certain point and that's where I think we will see connections and building those relationships with different producers that want to get into these types of food operations," he said. "We can actually bring those premium markets to those producers over time."
The tribe also has a hemp-growing license from USDA to oversee its own program. Farmers grow industrial hemp, which is being marketed as "Soje" hemp cigarette blends, which do not have tobacco or nicotine in them. The tribe has found that hemp has some benefits for soil health as well, Rhodd said.
"It's all-natural industrial hemp with some other smoking herbs blended in, and a lot of folks are using that Soje product for smoking cessation to get off of the tobacco products," he explained.
"So, we're getting many, many different streams of revenue from diversifying our farming operation," Rhodd said.
NATIONAL PARK GOAL
Along with the regenerative-ag component of the tribal lands, the Iowa Tribe also has a separate goal to take 811 acres during the next two years and open up the Ioway Tribal National Park, which would be the first national park actually operated by a Native American tribe. The park would largely be focused on preservation of the woodlands and wildlife habitat, but could also include some tourist areas such as walking trails.
Along with the Iowa Tribe, other major partners on the CERNA project include the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri, the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Deere & Co., Oatly, Miraterra, the Intertribal Ag Council, the South Health Academy, the Akana Group, the Regenified Network, Cooks Ventures and Global Processing.
See Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska:
To see the project grant:
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