For this unique two-part Q&A, the UC Food Observer sought out Janie Simms Hipp, an expert in indigenous food and agricultural issues. This is part two of our wide-ranging interview. In this portion of our interview, Janie talks about the University of Arkansas’ unique initiative, focusing on indigenous food and agriculture. It’s housed in that institution’s law school. As part of the initiative, Hipp provides leadership for a Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Summer Leadership Summit, which is attracting aspiring food leaders from Native communities.

Read part one of our Q&A with Janie here


“I know the power of having that knowledge and we want to share that with Native youth as soon as possible. We also want as many of these youth to stay with food production in their communities as possible and be successful in pursuing their passions.”

– Janie Simms Hipp, speaking about the youth participating in the Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Summer Leadership Summit

Janie Simms Hipp, J.D., LL.M. is the founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, the nation’s first law school-based initiative focusing on tribal governance, strategic technical policy assistance and Native youth and professional education supporting Native food systems. Janie is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. 

I first met Janie at a W.K. Kellogg Foundation gathering a number of years ago and have followed her work with great interest. Most recently I caught up with her at Farm Aid, in Chicago. Janie’s work is deeply rooted in food and agricultural issues. Before joining the faculty at the University of Arkansas’ law school, she served as Senior Advisor for Tribal Relations to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Director of the USDA Office of Tribal Relations at USDA. She also served within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) as National Program Leader for Farm Financial Management, Risk Management Education, Trade Adjustment Assistance and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program

Janie graduated from the University of Oklahoma (BA), Oklahoma City University (JD), and University of Arkansas School of Law (LLM, Agriculture and Food Law). She has been licensed as an attorney in Oklahoma for over 30 years. She has been honored as Distinguished Alumni of the University of Arkansas (2014) and the American Agricultural Law Association, Excellence in Agricultural Law awards. She has worked internationally, domestically and throughout Indian Country on issues related to food systems development, economic development in food and agriculture, rural resiliency, business development in food and agriculture and policy issues related to all aspects of food and agriculture.

About the the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law…it is the only law school-based initiative focused solely on the support, development and sustainability of indigenous food systems through policy analysis and advocacy, tribal self-governance and self-determination, professional and youth development and related efforts necessary to ensure long-term viability and improvement in access to food and food security and improved health and wellness in Native communities.


Q: Can you tell our readers about your work (at the University of Arkansas School of Law), which involves Tribal governments and food?

Janie: Our work focuses on three areas: tribal governance and policy development; strategic planning to help tribal food systems grow and achieve success; and enhancing professional development in food and agriculture and developing strong Native youth programs that will build leaders for Indian Country food and agriculture into the future. We answer phone calls, emails, letters and inquiries every week from many of the 567 tribal governments throughout the U.S. and recently launched a comprehensive model food and agriculture code development project for use by all tribal governments to improve the policy environment within their jurisdictions. We help link tribal food business and individual food producers with the resources they need to analyze new opportunities and challenges affecting their food systems and food businesses. We also are actively involved in food system analysis in Indian Country and the improvement of understanding of how best to achieve food sovereignty and improved food security in Indian Country.


Q: Can you tell our readers about the work your initiative is doing with Native youth?
Janie: When we launched the initiative three years ago, we became the first program like this in the nation. One of our many goals of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law is to increase student enrollment in food and agricultural related disciplines by supporting existing students and creating early pipeline programs for youth to enter collegiate studies in food and agriculture. We were recently awarded a 3-year grant from the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program that will support an ongoing program we have focused on building designed to increase student enrollment and student leadership in food and agriculture.

As part of our leadership development work, we held the first Native Youth in Food and Agriculture Summer Leadership Summit in July 2014. We had fifty students from 22 tribes from across the nation attend. The second year we doubled in size: 47 tribes were represented and 94 students were admitted and we had 20 students on wait list. We anticipate that each year from now on we will continue to see a significant increase in the number of students reaching out to experience the Summit and get themselves prepared for current and future leadership responsibilities in Indian Country food and agriculture. We see so many Native youth who are passionate about food and agriculture today. They are learning about it from their communities, their grandparents and their parents, understanding the deep connections of their tribes to food, sustainability and food sovereignty.


Q: Tell us about these young people…

Janie: These kids are on fire. They are self-selecting and choosing to attend the program. Some of these Native youth are already responsible for production of traditional foods for their tribe, some have culinary interests, some are farmers and some are ranchers…but they all want this to be their life’s work. They inspire me. They are sharp. The average GPA of students attending the Summit in years one and two was 3.7. Amazing. These Native youth are our leaders.

While historically many Ivy league schools have sought out Native youth to attend their focused programs, many of these programs did not have significant and in-depth courses of study in food and agriculture sciences, agriculture economics and related disciplines like agriculture engineering, ag finance, horticulture, livestock sciences and veterinary sciences to name a few. Many of the Native youth attending Ivy leagues have deep personal and familial connections to food and agriculture in their communities, but they find themselves in schools that don’t have livestock science, veterinary, agriculture business, agriculture engineering, or agriculture law and related programs. We need these young people to stay in the food and agriculture arena, to go into agriculture programs, know their traditions, the cultural context and ecological context as it relates to food within their communities. We believe this can best be done by connection to tribal colleges and then universities in the land grant family of institutions such as ours so that they can become our future Indian Country leaders in food.

We work these students hard when they attend the Summit. We teach them the intersection of agriculture and food law and Indian law and regulation and about the land tenure issues unique to Tribal Nations. We focus on business planning, market access planning, financial management and food sovereignty issues. We don’t teach them how to produce food while they are with us because the climate, soil and lands are different from place to place and those skills are best taught closer to home.

Indian Law is incredibly important for these next generation producers to understand as early as possible in their careers. The legal status of their land is different inside the jurisdictional boundaries of Indian Country. You have to understand that and how to negotiate these legal terrains when accessing credit and federal farm programs. Success is improved when you have an intense knowledge of your land tenure, regulations applicable to your operation and experience in building strong business plans and understanding risks.

I know the power of having that knowledge and we want to share that with Native youth as soon as possible. We also want as many of these youth to stay with food production in their communities as possible and be successful in pursuing their passions.

Credit: Elise Clote.
Credit: Elise Clote. Camp Director Odessa Oldham (Navajo), Director Janie Hipp (Chickasaw), student Kiha Stevens (Native Hawaiian), and Dean Stacy Leeds (Cherokee) pose with Kiha after he receives his diploma.


Q: You have a unique specialization as a lawyer that has informed your work. Can you tell our readers about that?

Janie: Indian Law as a course of legal study was not offered much at the time I went to law school – it was just emerging as a specialized field of legal study. The same holds true for environmental law, believe it or not. Agricultural law was in the same boat. I learned about the University of Arkansas’s masters in agricultural law which was launched in the late 1980s, when I was still doing a great deal of advocacy work for farmers in Oklahoma. I was afraid I didn’t know enough. I felt I needed to go back to law school because I often thought I was in over my head. I didn’t major in agriculture in college, although my family was involved in agriculture. So, I came to Arkansas to attend this brand new specialization program in agriculture law. I was in the 4th or 5th class within this new specialization program in agricultural law and after I finished my courses I stayed here in Arkansas at the University and had the honor of pursuing what would become a very broad-ranging and challenging career in agriculture and food law.

Since the beginning of my legal career in the 80s, I’ve always had a piece of my work that’s been about the intersection of Indian law and tribal food producers. One of my earliest partners in food and agriculture in Indian Country was the Intertribal Agriculture Council that has been around since 1987. The farm financial crisis hit tribal producers even harder than other groups of farmers. Because of this even more significant and equally complex impact, Congress began holding a series of hearings about this which led to a study regarding the unique needs of Indian Country agriculture.

At the time (the 1980s) most of the concern was focused on access to credit and basic farm programs that are created and supported through period Farm Bills passed by Congress. At that early time period, very little was discussed about other policy issues that are equally impactful on agriculture, such as environmental concerns, food safety regulation, sustainability, the presence of GMOs and any number of other issues that impact food and agriculture.