Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALCALDE - Agricultural specialist Edmund Gomez says there are at least 5,000 ranchers and farmers on New Mexico's pueblos, so he was surprised when the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted only 412 tribal producers in the last agricultural census in 1997.
"At best, they only counted 10 percent of the state's pueblo producers," said Gomez, executive director of New Mexico State University's Rural Agricultural Improvement and Public Affairs Project, based in Alcalde. "That means little government assistance is reaching thousands of tribal producers, most of whom are small-scale growers who need aid the most."
In fact, undercounting can mean less aid for all New Mexico producers in times of crisis, such as the current drought, because the USDA uses census figures to allocate funds to states based on need, Gomez said.
"In the last couple of years, severe drought has freed up federal drought assistance for states like New Mexico, but due to undercounting of Native Americans and others, allocated resources fell way short of need in our state," Gomez said. "Many individual counties had to develop a lottery system for relief benefits."
To attack the problem, NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service launched the Northern New Mexico Outreach Project in 2001 to develop a comprehensive database of Indian producers and educate them about assistance programs. The project, financed by a $277,000 USDA grant, allowed Gomez to hire two full-time Extension agricultural agents for the northern and southern pueblos for the first time in 20 years, plus a natural resources specialist based in Taos to work with other minority producers.
"Through the outreach project, we've already compiled a list of more than 1,000 Native American producers, and that's based on working with just a few pueblos," Gomez said.
Gomez is also working with the state statistician's office to improve Indian participation in the new agricultural census that USDA is preparing for release next year. The census, done every five years, tallies the number, size and type of farms in each state.
In February, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman appointed Gomez to serve on the national Advisory Committee on Agricultural Statistics, which assists the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) in shaping the survey and census programs.
However, assuring an accurate census is only the first step, Gomez said. Educating pueblo producers about available government assistance is just as important, because many ranchers and growers are confused about eligibility. Changes in federal policies are partly to blame.
Prior to 1990, Indian reservations were regarded as just one big farm by the USDA, regardless of their size and the number of individual producers, since reservations were considered collective land, Gomez said. But after the 1990 farm bill, individual producers on reservations became eligible for all USDA programs.
"The 1990 bill mandated all USDA agencies to provide service to Native Americans on their respective reservations, but USDA agencies are only slowly coming into compliance due to limited resources, so they're relying heavily on Extension to help them, at least in New Mexico," Gomez said.
Since last year, Extension agents have held many educational resource fairs on the pueblos to teach about USDA and Extension programs, including two multipueblo fairs at Alcalde and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. "The fairs help because many producers don't know about these programs," said Christina Turner, agricultural agent for the 10 southern pueblos. "There's a lot of aid available, from subsidized crop insurance to natural resource conservation incentives that pay up to 90 percent of costs for installing water-wise irrigation."
The agents also work with pueblo governments to disseminate information, and Extension is distributing a newsletter about aid programs to all the reservations. "More than 200 Native Americans have applied for benefits through USDA's Farm Service Agency since the outreach program began in 2001, compared with just five such applications in 2000," Gomez said. "The outreach is having a real impact."
Meanwhile, Extension agents are also reaching out to educate Hispanic producers in northern New Mexico about government programs. Unlike tribal producers, most Hispanic farmers were counted in the 1997 census, showing significant growth.
The number of Hispanic farm operators increased 15 percent between 1987 and 1997, from 3,013 to 3,477, and their share of farm acreage jumped 46 percent, from 2.54 million acres to 3.72 million.
Like tribal producers, most Hispanics are small-scale growers who could particularly benefit from aid programs. About 82 percent of all New Mexico farms earn less than $50,000 in gross annual sales, and three-fourths of those earn less than $10,000. Despite the low returns, more than half of the state's farmers say farming is their primary source of income.
Many Hispanic farmers, however, are either unaware of aid programs or believe they're not eligible, so in addition to the pueblos, Extension is organizing educational resource fairs in Hispanic-dominated areas.
"In Hispanic communities there's been a generation gap in farming as many young adults sought urban jobs, but many are coming back now," said Rey Torres, Extension agricultural agent in Taos County who helped organize a resource fair in Questa last March. "Many newer farmers don't know about aid programs or how to access them, so there's a lot of need for this kind of outreach."
For more information, call Gomez at (505) 852-2668.
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