Aaron LaPointe stood in front of a large map on the wall of his office at Ho-Chunk Inc. headquarters just as harvest season began. The map details the 178 square miles of the Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska. It also depicts an achievement for the tribe.
“We have 6,400 acres that we’re farming this year,” LaPointe said, pointing to the color-coded plots of land on the map. “We’re pretty much spread all over the reserve.”
This was not always the case. For years, nefarious federal policies uprooted the Winnebago people, and tribal lands were often sold or leased to white farmers at rates below the real value of the land.
In 2012, the Winnebago Tribe aimed to change course by developing a land lease policy that promoted opportunities for Native American farmers to lease tribal land. The policy change netted the tribe between $10 million and $12 million.
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A decade later, the Winnebago Tribe is now looking to build a future that goes beyond financial success. Through multiple programs, the tribe is moving toward food sovereignty while teaching sustainable farming practices to future generations of indigenous farmers.
“A lot of tribal nations preach that they are a sovereign nation,” LaPointe said. “But if you can’t feed yourself and you can’t produce your own food, how sovereign are you?”
LaPointe is the Senior Director of Agribusiness at Ho-Chunk Farms, a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk Inc. The Winnebago Tribe founded Ho-Chunk Inc. in 1994 as a tool for economic development.
Its creation came after changes to federal gambling laws prompted the tribe to open its first casino on tribal land near Sloan, Iowa. The company was an economic success and quickly became the largest employer on a reservation historically plagued by poverty.
Two years later, Iowa expanded gambling into the tribe’s major markets, and tribal leaders realized that casinos were not a long-term solution to economic prosperity.
“The tribe took half their money and started Ho-Chunk Inc.”, said Lance Morgan, President and CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc. “We bet on our future, and Ho-Chunk Inc . represents him.”
The bet paid off. From an initial tribal investment of $9 million, Ho-Chunk generated a return on investment of nearly $75 million and contributed $53 million to the Winnebago community between 2000 and 2014.
Between 2000 and 2016, the share of the Winnebago reservation living in poverty decreased by 6%. The number of adults 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher has increased nearly 70% since 2011, according to Ho-Chunk Inc.
And, thanks to Ho-Chunk Farms, the Winnebago Tribe is now one of the largest producers of organic crops in the region.
Progress has been gradual, LaPointe said. After the adoption of the back-to-the-land policy in 2012, the tribe gradually began bidding and winning small leases on farmland.
“It was a bit like, ‘Hey, we started this to take advantage of these farmers, well, now we’ve picked up land and we have to learn how to farm, so how are we going to do this?'” Said The point.
After interning with Ho-Chunk Inc. in 2015, LaPointe earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and was hired full-time in 2016.
“That’s when I started to identify the different issues we were facing on the land side, but also the future of the farms – what was that going to look like? How were we going to get to profitability ?
Ho-Chunk Farms began prioritizing quality land leases over quantity. They gave up renting high-rent, hard-to-cultivate land and began to diversify crops.
In 2017, a transition to organic farming began, along with new efforts to positively impact the community through education and food sustainability. Organic farming is done without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
“We see the benefits and the ecological values of organic production,” LaPointe said. “It just seemed right for the native company to be doing organic farming, like we used to.”
In 2019, Ho-Chunk Inc. opened the Village Market, an indoor farmers’ market on the reservation that helped bring healthy, locally grown food to a community that had long been a food desert.
Ho-Chunk Farms has also expanded its traditional Indian corn program for students. The program began in 2017 with the aim of revitalizing a declining cultural practice in the community.
And a recently established Diversified Agriculture program at Little Priest College in Winnebago aims to educate a future generation of Winnebago farmers and agricultural scientists.
Now, LaPointe looks to the next 10 years.
“A long-term goal is to continue to take control of our own lands and manage them in a way that we know is sustainable in the long term, and then develop these localized food systems that will allow us to be sustainable in the long term. “, said LaPointe. .