This is the first in a series of stories highlighting Resiliency through Agriculture.
The generosity of agriculture and the potential for farmers, ranchers and all people to act in more selfless fashions can be found amongst the chaos of the times if one looks for it closely enough, said Zach Ducheneaux – Executive Director of the Intertribal Ag Council (IAC).
Ducheneaux, who works with his family on their fourth-generation ranch on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north central South Dakota, has experienced the challenges and successes of the current food system in this nation firsthand. He took the time to tell an important story to help inspire more goodwill and problem solving in the wake of tumultuous times.
“Even in these times of uncertainty, collapsing markets and few signs of hope on the horizon – farmers, ranchers, some government officials, nonprofits and Tribal Nations are thinking of ways to serve others first,” Ducheneaux began.
It all began four weeks ago when an urgent message was shared around the same subject that is now the subject of national and international news stories – livestock are being slaughtered by desperate farmers. Livestock that could be food for hungry people.
“A credible source sent a message concerning the disposal of animal carcasses that wouldn’t be able to be slaughtered due to the current pandemic,” Ducheneaux explained.
Kelsey Ducheneaux, IAC Natural Resources Director shared the message with IAC leadership and the team began its work, he said, “First we reached out to the Quapaw Tribe in Northeast Oklahoma who operates a federally inspected, multi-species slaughter facility. In a two-minute conversation, Chris Roper said, ‘Count us in for a load, we’ll make it work. We have to. We can’t let all that food go to waste.’”
The next call was made to State Conservationist, Jeff Zimprich, who confirmed that yes, worst case scenario planning was underway to assist in the best process for disposal of not only hog carcasses, but all animals. This was followed by a conversation with pork producer, John Macgregor, Ducheneaux said, “With the burial pit being dug for his hogs, there was still an eagerness in his voice to do some good. When asked for a price, he quoted a price of about $35 per head when it was explained that people in need would be fed.”
IAC then connected Macgregor and Roper and committed to purchase and ship the hogs. As the story continued to unfold, another message to an IAC employee from a family friend who was also a veterinarian was happening simultaneously Ducheneaux noted, “The vet, Kathleen Jost, was sharing – with considerable consternation – the fact that the coming week was booked with euthanization of hogs in the Morris, Minnesota area for disposal.”
Yet another conversation with Roper at Quapaw took place to tap into his network of Tribal connections, Ducheneaux said, “This resulted in a text message from Roper to myself stating they could move three pot loads of hogs. It was relayed the effort to rally more tribes was ongoing.”
Roper said as the coronavirus continues to impact meat processing plants nationwide, farmers and ranchers will continue asking for help with their growing backlog of hogs, turkeys, and other animals. He reiterated the Quapaw Nation and IAC will strive to work together to extend a helping hand to agricultural producers across the United States to help prevent food waste.
“By making arrangements with farmers and ranchers with backlogs of hogs, Quapaw Nation and Intertribal Agricultural Council were able to provide safe transportation for the animals to be distributed to tribal members and to the community, preventing them from being euthanized and ultimately wasted,” Roper reiterated. “Tribes across the nation were originally hunters and gathers and processed their own animals. Tribes have the natural ability to process and preserve their own food and should have access to these animals to keep them from being wasted.”
COVID-19 is not the cause – but is exposing long-term, systemic issues.
What Ducheneaux wants all people to understand is, “COVID-19 is not the cause of the ag crisis. Ag debt has increased by four percent a year since 1994. We have become more and more distanced from our food sources. We have allowed a wedge to be driven between urban and rural folks as though our lives are mutually exclusive from each other.”
“The farmers share of every dollar spent on food remains below 15 cents,” he pointed out. “This, while giant, multinational food conglomerates reap more profit, year after year. Banks grow, producers tighten their belts, and we have an exodus of youth from this most important of sectors.”
“Our food systems have been operating on a razor thin margin for decades. Farmers and ranchers are among a growing list of Americans where a second, or third income, is needed to make a living,” he said passionately. “Our farmers and ranchers find themselves stuck in a commodity cycle of production, forced to go ‘all-in’ the way, ‘grandpa done it’ because we’re still stuck in the exact same system that caused grandpa to pass on debt to his children and on and on.”
“We’re told by some of our ‘industry experts’ that we must increase yields and meanwhile the retail price of our products trend ever upward, while the quality is degraded in the name of profit,” he pointed out. “We’re told to improve our genetics, to increase the quality of an end product that reaps no benefit for us in the current system – instead, yielding ever more profit for the corporations, who in the interest of their bottom line, literally couldn’t care about ours.”
Ducheneaux said it is time to ask and act on the following question, “What is keeping us here?”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in debt. I have. I know firsthand the weight that you carry around all day, and toss and turn under every night, and at times it seems as though the entire world is aligned against you,” he said.
“Our producers are destroying livestock, dumping milk and we are seeing no immediate relief on the horizon for those most exposed to financial distress and ruin. Yet we see no nationwide movement to proactively restructure debt or lower interest rates, despite six weeks of eased regulations and near zero percent overnight interest rates for banks,” Ducheneaux pointed out.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the fundamental weaknesses of the already weak systems we live within,” Ducheneaux said. “IAC is a non-profit created in the 1980s, during the time of yet another crisis – this one duly named, ‘The Farm Crisis.’ Here we are again in another crisis – a Global Crisis. IAC was designed to promote agriculture and food system development in Indian Country. The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma has a diversified portfolio of food system enterprises and freely shares their pathways to success by contracting with IAC to put American Indian food on the table of conferences attendees across the country.”
This is all a good start. Stopping the euthanizing of hogs and feeding hungry people is a start. The efforts of the Quapaw and other Tribes to feed their people and others, is a start. Ducheneaux said. He also said we must dig deep into ourselves again as Tribal people and all people on earth to rediscover the true, “generosity of agriculture.”
“This story is just one example,” Ducheneaux said. “We can change things.”
For more information regarding IAC's COVID-19 response, visit: indianag.org/resilient