Verna Billedeaux – Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program (FRTEP) Montana State University
Agriculture is the primary economic industry on the Blackfeet Reservation with 800 producers managing 1.5 million acres of land. Limited access to credit, capital and lack of a credit history has prevented beginning farmers and ranchers from returning to family farms, threatening the sustainability of agriculture on the reservation.
Program director and FRTEP agent Verna Billedeaux, extends lifelong learning to individuals through unbiased, research-based education and information that integrates learning, discovery, and engagement to strengthen the social, economic and environmental fabric of communities on the Blackfeet Reservation. Her program priority areas are centered around Indian Farmer and Rancher Productivity and Management, and Tribal Youth and 4-H.
The 4-H program is one of the greatest accomplishments on the Blackfeet Reservation. Twenty-three years ago there was no 4-H program on the reservation. The tribal council supported the agent in setting up a 4-H office for the select purpose of administering 4-H on the reservation. The fledgling effort grew from 4 to over 100 enrolled 4-H youth. With the help of partners and local volunteers, programs were designed that were a cultural fit. Part of this endeavor was establishing a local fair with its own unique brand where every youth’s accomplishments could be recognized One major outcome is that the majority of youth are graduating out of 4-H instead of dropping out after 7th or 8th grade.
FRTEP is looked upon as a valuable and trusted community resource.
Community members recognize that the Blackfeet Extension office serves an overall important function in the community with the capacity to connect people to other programs and services. FRTEP has utilized a dedicated cadre of volunteers who design innovative programs specifically for youth – helping them to forge a connection between the land and its natural resources. These volunteers have managed a natural resource youth camp for the past 16 years.
The Montana Junior Ag Loan Program administered by the Montana Department of Ag is a steadily growing program which assists and encourages youth and beginning farmers and ranchers in financing agricultural projects. The program has helped revive agricultural traditions on the Blackfeet Reservation. Participants have the opportunity to build their capital and credit and can continue to borrow through other loan programs such as the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI’s). Many have built up their cattle herds and collateral to be able to establish a cattle operation. Another significant benefit for several participants is that profits from the cattle operation are providing funds for their college education. The long run goal for this program is for young or new and beginning ranchers to graduate out of the Junior Ag Loan Program into commercial lending.
“We are an invisible thread in connecting people…which the Tribe relies on us to do – and to be a catalyst for new ideas and solutions.”
As farmers and ranchers age, it’s becoming more important to educate Blackfeet youth and for them to acquire knowledge on ag and natural resource programs that will make it possible for them to be successful farmers and ranchers on into the future. Land grant Extension specialists are an integral part of the FRTEP – imparting research based knowledge and education to an audience who may not otherwise have an opportunity to receive. Support from, and engagement with the tribal government and elders is integral to growing agriculture on the Blackfeet Reservation; as well as collaboration with the tribal business counsel to help stimulate economic development.When asked what distinguishes the FRTEP (Blackfeet Extension), the agent’s response was that sovereign nations are being served with valid subject matter and cultural knowledge that directly benefits youth, farmers and ranchers and the community at large. There is a level of trustworthiness from being physically present on the reservation; “…our ability to connect people with the land – to teach young people the importance of ag – to feed ourselves – the cultural and nutritional importance of food and to connect elders with youth.” (Billedeaux 2017)
“We [FRTEP] need to acknowledge our importance and to …recognize the value in what we do”