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Sen. Smith goes to buffalo home

U.S. senator seeks input on 'Native Farm Bill'

At first glance, it looks like a typical farm. Chickens cluck as they wander freely about the yard, with occasional herding by the family dog. Two ponies and two horses are snacking on hay from a feedbag hung over the red metal fence. On the other side of the paddock, bison graze in a field.

Rewind that pastoral scene. Bison?

Yes. Farm owners David and Patra Wise brought 12 bison, also known as buffalo, to their small-scale family farm last fall. A great-great-grandson of Chief Buffalo, David said he grew up hearing the stories of the buffalo, and how the Ojibwe and Native people always lived on this continent with the buffalo.

"They're like relatives to us," he said. "For me to bring them back, it feels like a natural fit. They're low-impact, high-density, rich food. They're good for the environment and they're good for the people. It gives me a good feeling in my heart to see them on the land again."

The horses are also special: they're Ojibwe Spirit Horses, also known as Lac La Croix ponies, that the Wise family is fostering as part of a repopulation program after the rare breed nearly went extinct. David said most horses don't like the bison, but the Spirit Horses were curious and whinnying to meet the small herd as soon as they arrived.

Aside from bringing native animals back, the couple has several goals for their Native Wise farm. They want to earn a living as small-farmers, providing healthy food and products to their customers. They also want to restore the land - near Sawyer, on the Fond du Lac Reservation - using sustainable farming practices. And they want to share the joy of growing and eating the healthy foods that kept the Native Americans nourished for centuries before the land was settled by Europeans.

David and Petra are now farming full-time, but being beginning farmers, the growth in products comes with lots of challenges.

A special visit

Those challenges are part of the reason U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., stopped by the farm Monday for a tour. Smith serves on both the Senate Agriculture and Indian Affairs committees. She is working to create a bipartisan "Native Farm Bill," a package of bipartisan bills that address the needs of Native and tribal producers in the larger Farm Bill. It is a task she is uniquely positioned to tackle.

As she talked with David and Petra during the tour, Smith would sometimes turn to staff member Kirsten Buscher, her Native affairs outreach coordinator, and make verbal notes of things they needed to remember when they get back to Washington, D.C. Some were suggestions - such as a "bison standard" for a fencing program, which provided some grant money, but only to the standards required for cattle. Bison need a 10-foot fence, cows about 4 feet. It meant David and Petra had to fund a much larger percentage of the costs than did cattle farmers in the same program.

David dreams of a mobile USDA-certified harvest unit for butchering for the day when their bison herd is large enough to harvest some of the animals. They would market everything: meat, fur, bones and fat.

Outreach, and programs to help beginning farmers learn about licensing, taxes, federal programs and other official requirements would be huge, Petra said.

"I wish it could be simplified," said the environmental science major, expressing regret that she didn't take more business classes in school.

Smith, who has an MBA, said the legislature should help small-farmers succeed.

"We need a diverse farm economy. I think we will always have big operations and that's OK, but there has to be a way for small-farmers to be successful in this ecosystem," she said.

The Minnesota senator talked about increasing concentration in agriculture in terms of large-farmers, meat processors, fertilizer and seed sellers and pesticide companies.

"What's happening is those companies are all making a lot of money. But small-farmers and farmers in general are keeping fewer and fewer pennies out of that food dollar," she said, noting that the farmer's share went from about 35 cents to 12 cents today. "That's not sustainable. It's not good for small towns and rural places if you can't do well as a producer, large or small."

She rattled off examples including crop insurance or conservation programs. "Do they work for small farms, working lands like this?" Smith said.

Then she brought it back to the legislature.

"It seems incumbent on us policy makers to really look at our policies and make sure we're not inadvertently driving out small-farmers who want to be able to do something really creative and great, like what these folks are doing," Smith said.


Buy locally

Native Wise LLC sells wild rice, hemp and CBD products, maple syrup, raw honey, heirloom vegetables, apples, cherries, and blueberries. Native Wise products may be purchased at Cloquet Natural Foods on Carlton Avenue and both Whole Foods Co-op stores in Duluth. Shop online at nativewisellc.net or stop by the farm at 4020 Kari Road in Sawyer (but call 218-499-5038 first, to make sure they're home).