FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Sophia Keesie would like some company, please.

A Cheyenne, Arapaho, Navajo and Santa Clara Pueblo senior at Watonga High School, Keese shows swine as an officer with her school’s Future Farmers of America chapter.

Although the northwestern Oklahoma school is squarely within the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ jurisdictional area, she is the chapter’s only active Native member.

“Nobody’s that interested in agriculture,” she said of her indigenous classmates. “Once they hear the word, they zone out.”

Instead, she’s finding company a little farther out from home, as Keese was one of 150 students from 76 tribes nationally selected for the Fourth Annual Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Leadership Summit this summer.

Co-hosted by the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative and the Intertribal Agriculture Council, the summit brings together Native youth from across the country for 10 days to provide networking opportunities, as well as an introductions to drafting policy, ethnobotany and business planning.

In addition to classroom sessions, participants had hands-on sessions as well, including a simulation on budgeting to cover the all the costs that come with running a farm, plus tours of the Quapaw Tribe’s greenhouses and livestock facilities and the animal and food sciences laboratories at the University of Arkansas.

A resident of Plasterville, California, Osage Nation citizen Kier Johnson-Reyes is a representative for the Intertribal Ag Council and was among the staffers at the summit. In addition to growing speckled and red corn, he is a technical assistance resource for indigenous farmers and ranchers in Nevada, Hawaii and California and views events like the summit as an opportunity to better equip the next generation.

“We’re charged to be mentors in Indian Country,” he said. “We want to be a point of contact. The summit is like a doorway or way to get tapped into all sorts of resources and opportunities.       

“It’s not just cows and plows. It’s traditional foods, gathering, hunting, natural resources, land management. Wherever your interests are, we can plug you into those resources.”

For Keesie, her agricultural interests lie not just with showing hogs and raising horses, but with food access.

In order to come back to the summit a second time, she had demonstrate why she wanted to return and how that would potentially benefit their community.

Sparked by a 2016 session on livestock and pesticides, Keesie applied to come back to Fayetteville for the opportunity to work towards improving access to organic foods in and around Watonga, both through a community garden and at her tribe’s distribution site.

“Yes, we have a grocery store, but it has products with GMOs,” Keesie said. “The organic food there is really expensive.”

That interest goes hand in hand with the vision of one of the summit’s founders.

The director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, Janie Simms Hipp is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. A former senior policy adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, she has been at each edition of the summit.

With more and more tribes recognizing the both the need for food sovereignty and the economic diversification opportunities associated with agriculture, interest in the summit and other food-related programs has exploded, she said.

“This isn’t about me,” she said. “This is about what’s happening in Indian Country right now. You can’t wiggle at all without seeing a tribe that’s actively involved in food, food production, gardening, farm to school, getting food in to the hands of their people, healthier food, healthier food access or dealing with hunger.

“There are tribes realizing that we have so much potential around investing in our food infrastructure and utilizing the surplus of any food we grow to enter the marketplace and diversify our economies.”

That increased interest comes as the agriculture industry grapples with both a growing population and a graying workforce.

According to data compiled by both the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer is 58. Among American Indian and Native Alaskan farmers, more than one-third are age 65 or older.

“We can’t wait 20 years to have our replacement available,” IAC member Zach Ducheneaux said. “We’ve made a conscious decision to start grooming the next generation to step in and starting doing this sooner rather than later.”