A.J. Seymour, Coushatta Tribe greenhouse assistant, checks on tomatoes in the tribe's hydroponic greenhouse. The tribe is currently growing more than 1,600 tomato plants and lettuce, but plans to expand the produce to include cucumbers and eggplants in the future. (Doris Maricle / American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 6:58 PM
ELTON — Led by its Department of Commerce, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana has made great strides in economic development and job creation over the past decade as it ventures into a variety of new areas from gambling and hospitality to international investments.
The tribe is now focusing on the agriculture industry, Tribal Council member David Sickey said Tuesday.
“It makes sense that the tribe would get involved and become more aggressive in agriculture,” he said. “We have been strong in gaming for 16 years, but we are much more than that. The agriculture sector represents a diversification outside of gaming.”
In recent years the tribe has ventured into hydroponics agriculture, growing its own lettuce and tomatoes; has expanded its farmers market; and has implemented a pine leaf restoration project. The tribe also has a cattle program and operates a crawfish farm.
“Through the years we have been stewards, conservationists and agriculturists. Now through a variety of initiatives we are striving to return to these roots,” Sickey said “We are seeking and finding new ways to make farming a critical part of our culture once again.”
The Tribal Council recently passed a resolution creating the Coushatta Tribe Department of National Resources.
“We believe one of the best ways to secure our future is returning to our past,” Sickey said. “We think that agriculture can be as critical now as it has ever been, not only for the Coushatta Tribe, but our entire region.”
The tribe discussed ways to expand and strengthen its agriculture initiatives Tuesday during an agribusiness marketing conference attended by more than 100 farmers, agriculture leaders and students from area universities.
“One of the primary purposes of the conference is to highlight the tribe’s achievements in the area of agribusiness and agri-science,” Sickey said. “There are a lot of exciting new things and initiatives that are taking place that the tribe would like the community to be aware of.”
The tribe is working with local and regular universities and agriculture experts to explore the latest breakthroughs and trends in food science, best land management practices and the benefits of eating locally grown produce.
Coushatta Natural Resource Manager Gardner Rose discussed the hydroponics greenhouses, which were installed in 2011. The tribe now grows tomatoes and lettuce, and it plans to expand to cucumbers and eggplant in the future, Rose said.
It also uses its own bumblebees for pollination as part of the process, he said.
Food grown in the greenhouses is sold at farmers markets, purchased by the casino and sold to the public.
In 2008, the tribe partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-establish a 40-acre longleaf pine site for the tribe’s basket weavers. The tribe manages and maintains the site. The property was planted with rice for a number of years, then was converted to a cow pasture, Rose said.
The tribe also implemented a five-acre bottomland hardwood planting reforestation program and maintains a mayhaw orchard.
The tribe hopes to take advantage of a new Indian agriculture think tank established at the University of Arkansas to create a “robust agriculture economy,” Sickey said.
The indigenous food and agriculture initiative’s goal is to help tribes like the Coushatta with strategic planning, according to Stacy Leeds, dean and professor of law at the University of Arkansas School of Law.
The program will also offer technical assistance, including research and publications, to help build sustainable food and agriculture sectors among tribes, Leeds said.
“It’s one way tribes can overcome the challenges and expand their economic development to diversify what they are doing,” Leeds said.
The Coushatta Tribe appears to be a leader in the agriculture sector, she said.
“They are already a leader in having their own farmers market and putting economic development monies back into agriculture. That puts them ahead of the game compared to other tribes,” she said.
The number of American Indian-owned farms and ranches has grown to nearly 35,000 in the last five years — an increase of 124 percent, Leeds said.