Honoring Nations: Pat Cornelius: Oneida Nation Farms

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Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
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Manager of the Oneida Nation Farms Pat Cornelius presents an overview of the organization's work to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.

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Cornelius, Pat. "Oneida Nation Farms." Honoring Nations Awards event. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Tulsa, Oklahoma. November 1, 2005. Presentation.

Pat Cornelius:

"Well, good afternoon everyone and to the Board of Governors. Thank you for inviting us. What I heard this morning with the presenters are really impressive.

Just to let the people know here that the Oneida Farm is one of the biggest farms in northeast Wisconsin. Total acres approximately 9,000 acres. We're tilling approximately 4,700 and some acres. Fifteen years ago we started with 300 acres and 30 head of cattle. It was our general tribal council that said to our council that we should go ahead and purchase our land back, so that's what we're doing. They gave the land commission nine million [dollars] every year to repurchase our land base back.

The Oneida Nation Farms: the Native American Agriculture in America Midwest Heartland

Difficulties and obstacles: the many difficulties and obstacles the Native Americans have seen during the past three centuries must be addressed. We were America's first farmers and we were good stewards of the land and many Native Americans lost their homelands and were displaced to unfamiliar areas with little or no resources to make their living at all. While most farmers and ranchers in America flourished, Indians lacked the modern agricultural know-how and until recently could not get capital, technical support in making agriculture work on the reservations. But we have begun to grow through learning and practical application and this is done through the Kellogg Foundation, First Nations [Development] Institute, Intertribal Bison Cooperative, IAC, USDA Technical Assistance, progressive leadership by our Oneida tribal chairman Gerald Danforth.

Two hundred years ago: history is replete with the early agricultural success of the Oneida Tribe. In the 1500s, the Oneida community in New York were visited by traders [who] reported millions of bushels of corn in storage, 500 acres of land in production. In the early 1900s with a diminished land base, the Haudenosaunee Oneida agriculturalists continued to operate self-sufficient homesteads throughout the territory. We raised white corn, beans, squash, fruits, orchards, domesticated animals. Our cellars were lined with home grown and home canned foods and their corn cribs were full of white corn and they sold food and economics and crafts for a living, although some had already joined the labor force. The cultural, agriculture and social diminished of the Haudenosaunee society were intricately interconnected and intertwined. Well, times have changed.

The Oneida Tribe began settling in what would become Wisconsin in the 1820s. The Oneida Tribe had a treaty agreement with the Menominee Nation for eight million acres. The treaty was for the use and occupancy of the land and the land agreement was then reduced to 500,000 acres. The Oneida Treaty of 1838 gave the Oneida Tribe 65,000 acres and under the Dawes Allotment Act the land base dwindled down to 200. In a hundred years we went from that to approximately 100 acres or 200 acres of land. Traditional tribal culture makes no distinction or separation between spiritual worldviews, values and cultural practices. As Euro-American contact progresses, tribal cultures were devastated.

The allotment and assimilation eras promoted by the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887 and the boarding school era. The boarding school era took infants and children who were ripped from their mothers' arms and placed them in a school far away from their families and literally beat the Indian out of these youths to assimilate them to take the savage out of them. However, they did not understand the deep-seated nature of our cultures, our values, and many of our Native people at that time literally took their culture and tradition and values to the underground to preserve them and preserve their cultural identity. They would not be broken people.

Land and reacquiring our land base back

For the Oneida Tribe everything today is about land and reacquiring our land base. Today, Mother Earth remains the basis of our life for the Oneida people, giving our people subsistence, healing and identity. It connects the past and the present and drives decisions about the future. The Tribe is trying to buy back its full original reservation in northeast Wisconsin. It has laid legal claim to Native land in New York, in upstate New York, and it continues to invest in agriculture and environmental protection programs. Land also goes back to our ceremonies. Land is important in terms of where our ancestors are buried, where the medicines grow, where the trees grow on our Nation. The Oneida Tribe is in the process of reacquiring the original boundaries and has reacquired 17,800 acres, plans to purchase 1,000 acres a year and will have reacquired 51 percent of the 65,000 acres by the year 2020.

The Oneida Nation Farm was started in 1978 and was known as the Iroquois Farm. It had 150 acres and primarily grew vegetables and had a herd of about 25 head of cattle. The Oneida Tribe in their 1979 comprehensive plan proposed using acquired agricultural land to diversify the economy, provide food for the people and to provide employment for our people. We had a meager beginning. In 1989 the farm operation where I began was 350 acres of land and 35 head of cattle. In 1990, the business committee issued a list of objectives. One of these was for the tribe to produce its own vegetables and meat by the year 2000. [In] 1992, the farm land base tripled in size. In 1993, investments in equipment and upgrades to the livestock feed lots were accomplished. These improvements resulted in a workable and efficient farm operation today. At this time, a vertically integrated Oneida agricultural operation became the focus and study to determine the potential for developing a new cannery facility and would process our own meat and our own crops grown on the Oneida fields and could market, distribute, sell the products to our own citizens and other consumers. In 1994, the farm's land base consisted of 1,981 acres of which 1,429 were suitable for crops. So we fast-forward to the year 2004 and we find that the Oneida Farm and the Oneida Agricultural Center grew significantly and responsibly while managing the current...it says 9,000 acres, and diversifying a sustainable farming operation with nine employees.

Consider the following: the farm currently produces 4,750 acres of cash crops, fields of corn, soy beans, wheat, oats and alfalfa. They are either consumed by the farm livestock or we sell it to our neighbors or to outside buyers. We generated nearly two million in revenues in 1995 by placing 2,000 acres sub-marginally acres into federal conservation programs and then we manage 450-550 a year nearly natural Black Angus beef in our feeding operation. We established a hundred head cow/calf rotational grazing project through the federal and with the assistance of the EQUIP program. So we do rotational grazing and now we have a hundred head of calves as well by their side. We established 115 head of bison with the help of ITBC [Intertribal Bison Cooperative] including fencing, water wells and corrals.

We produce traditional white corn, sweet corn for our tribal members and we have a 30-acre apple orchard and we provide healthy harvest in 2004 with sales to our regional orchards that had a poor production year. The orchard store sells squash, pumpkin, pick your own apples, fresh apples, apple pie filling, apple cider, apple butter, applesauce and we sell beef and buffalo and other Native American products. We began studying the creation expansion of a unique Oneida orchard agricultural market with greater country appeal than the large box stores, established new marketing with billboards -- State of Wisconsin, Something from Wisconsin -- and working with the radio stations and newspaper.

It is important that I work with the Oneida Nation school system to begin teaching agricultural business and agricultural bison programs within the schools. We entered the world of high tech. We do our farming with global positioning, high-tech equipment for our plants, our crops, our fertilizer base, and our production. The Oneida Farm works closely with outside funding sources. We worked with again the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, Kellogg Foundation, First Nations [Development Institute], Native American Social Economic Development Strategies, and all USDA programs. Thank you."

Amy Besaw:

"Questions from the board?"

David Gipp:

"You've got a remarkable amount of diversity just within all of your programs that you operate here and I think you're to be commended for it, really some very historical and cultural work that you're doing within your nation. Agriculture and nutrition are I think two critical issues to many of our tribal nations across the land and I guess one of the key questions I always ask is, how do you look at transferability and how does this kind of model that you use work, how could it work for other tribal nations? And what are some of your key ingredients -- if you were to give that advice to another tribal nation -- about how to apply both agricultural and nutritional issues, because as you know diabetes and all of those kinds of issues are real, real problems for most of our population out there throughout Indian Country?

Pat Cornelius:

"Well, working a farm or agriculture or any business with an intertribal government can be...test your strength and your job. What it needs is you need the backing of your tribal...the business committee that we have back home. We need all the players to be involved to support the project to say that health is important, food is important, food security is important and it has to come from the top down. If they support you, that makes my job easier. And then to address the health issues, I am now contacting our diabetes program and working in the schools. We just got our foot in the door so to speak and I think it's critical that we work with our youth and get them to understand -- not only youth as far as health -- but youth to get them involved in coming out and working in the area of agriculture. I worked with youth for 12 years prior to taking this job. I was a home school coordinator at one time and our youth and elders are just...they're our future. They're the future. And who said that we couldn't do farming? Tribal people can do farming and go back and take it back and do it."

Elsie Meeks:

"I just want to make a really quick comment. I would like to commend the Oneida Tribe for hiring a woman as their farm manager."

Pat Cornelius:

"Well, here's my Chair, here's the tribal chairman Gerry Danforth."

Gerry [Gerald] Danforth:

"If I can just comment briefly. I'm the Chairman for Oneida, just recently elected, but I would remiss extremely in my responsibilities as the tribal leader and from the previous tribal leaders who have saw in their past has the wisdom to see this come to a reality but none of this vision would have ever occurred or come to place today with the form of recognition that this Harvard Project has introduced and it certainly would not have become a reality without the steadfast dedication of this woman standing here today, Pat Cornelius."

Pat Cornelius:

"Thank you. Thank you, Gerry."

Oren Lyons:

"I'd like to ask you, what's been the reaction of your non-Indian neighbors to the development of your farm and also to the buffalo herd?"

Pat Cornelius:

"Well, it started like this, is that when we slowly started...I started with the 300 acres, that's how I started my management position to where it is today and I'd go to these feed programs and these programs. My mother's full-blooded Oneida, my father is full-blooded Polish so I kind of look like the Polish side. So I'd go into these meetings and I'd listen to them because like this around, the Oneidas are farming now and they'd say, "˜Now what are those Indians doing?' And they'd want to know what the Indians were doing. And they said, "˜Oh, the federal government must have bought them a tractor and a combine.' Well, I let them talk and talk and then I'd go over and I'd say, introduce myself, and I'd say, "˜I'm Pat, manager of the Oneida Nation Farms.' Well, either they'd turn so red and walk away or they would sit down and talk to me. It has made a big turnaround in our community that we're now very well-respected as far as doing agriculture and they watch us and even some of the new modern machinery that we get to put soil and residue first in how we operate and manage the soils that one day I bought a piece of machinery and within a month there was three farmers that bought the same piece of machinery once they seen us use it. So they do watch us and it's really turned around to being respectful now."

Oren Lyons:

"Are they buying your produce?"

Pat Cornelius:

"Yes, they did. I just sold, right there the corn off that field and we were 230 bushel to the acre on that field and we were...we sold it to one of the big dairies nearby. The first check came in was $78,000 and the next check was $197,000."

David Gipp:

"So it won't be long before you'll be replacing this Land O'Lakes stuff then, huh?"

Pat Cornelius:

"Yes. Oneida Tribal stuff."

David Gipp:

"Very good. One of the other questions I had is that we understand that the effort that you lead really has led to reacquiring about 27 and a half percent of the former reservation or reservation lands or territory I guess. Is that also a part of your long term idea or plan to reacquire even more acreage that benefits agricultural and the citizens of your nation?"

Pat Cornelius:

"I would say yes because most of the acres, the large acres tracts that we have within our area is coming from dairy farmers that are either elder and they don't want to farm anymore. We don't even have to go out and ask to buy land, they come to us. But the land runs anywhere from $5,000 to $9,000 an acre right now and that's what they're charging and if you want it back, that's what we have to pay. I've been on the land commission for 20 years also. I wear about 10 different hats but I just do my job. I just do my job. I work with youth, work with the elder. Sovereignty, the land is important. When I started with the land commission, we had less than 2,000 acres."

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Oneida Nation Farms

In the 1820s, a portion of the Oneida people of New York moved to Wisconsin, where they took up their accustomed practices as farmers. Over the next hundred years, the Oneida Nation lost nearly all its lands and much of its own agrarian tradition. In 1978, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin established…

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Patty Ninham-Hoeft, Business Committee Secretary for the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, discusses the impact of Oneida Nation Farms on the Oneida community and how it is a concrete expression of tribal sovereignty.