From left: Jason Hulit, Aaron LaPointe and Jeffery Thomas Jr. of Ho-Chunk Farms, an agricultural business owned by Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe. Photo courtesy Ho-Chunk Farms

'It's a pretty monumental step': Tribal farm reclaims land on Winnebago Reservation

It wasn’t always this way.

Once the Ho-Chunk people had vast lands upon which they planted corn, beans and squash and hunted deer and buffalo. But to make way for westward moving settlers, the government forcibly removed them from their homes in Wisconsin and relocated them in northeast Nebraska.

Life in Nebraska for the Ho-Chunk, now federally recognized as the Winnebago Tribe, has been a mixed bag.

The Dawes Act of 1887 divided the tribe’s lands into individual allotments, and most of the tribe’s members sold their land to non-Native settlers. By the 1900s, the Winnebago Tribe owned just one-third of its reservation lands.

But the tribe has slowly begun retaking the lands it lost.

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Recently, a company owned by the tribe, Ho-Chunk Farms, purchased 231 acres from a non-Native landowner for $1.3 million and plans to farm the land.

“It’s a pretty monumental step for Ho-Chunk Farms and for the Winnebago Tribe,” said Aaron LaPointe, manager of Ho-Chunk Farms. “I’m hoping it will open up more opportunities.”

Currently, just 25 percent of farmable land on the Winnebago Reservation is owned by the tribe or its citizens, LaPointe said.

In addition to the Ho-Chunk Farms purchase, the Winnebago Tribe is currently considering buying many more acres of farmland, he said.

“This signals the tribe and tribal entities are in the business of buying land,” LaPointe said.

Aaron LaPointe serves as business manager for Ho-Chunk Farms, the Winnebago Tribe's agricultural arm. He is seen at the grand opening of the Village Market at Ho-Chunk Village on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska on August 24, 2019. Photo: Ho-Chunk Village Farmers Market

This spring, Ho-Chunk Farms will plant an additional 5,000 acres of leased farmland on the Winnebago Reservation. The company – a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk, Inc., the tribe's economic development corporation – will also purchase farm equipment to expand its machinery line. The goal is to increase tribal employment in farming and reduce contracted work.

Ho-Chunk Farms started in 2012. In that time, it’s changed the dynamics of reservation farming and increased agricultural land values for the Winnebago Tribe.

The company will plant 440 acres of USDA Certified Organic crops this spring, including 270 newly certified acres. The company is currently transitioning 591 acres to certified organic, an increase of 340 acres from last year.

Ho-Chunk Farms’ direct investment in the Winnebago community is facilitated by revenue from organic and commodity crops.

Ho-Chunk Farms, the Winnebago Tribe and community partners are promoting food sovereignty with a number of projects, including traditional Indian corn, raised bed vegetable gardens and a new summer farmers' market building in the Ho-Chunk Village.

And last summer, the tribe became among the first in the nation to start planting hemp after receiving a state license to do so.

Ho-Chunk Farms was one of just 10 applicants granted a Nebraska license to grow hemp last year out of 176 applications received by the state. Ho-Chunk Farms planted just 5.5 acres of hemp last year.

LaPointe said his company learned a lot about the challenges of growing hemp outdoors after struggling to prevent cross-pollination with wild hemp. Ho-Chunk Farms plans to create a separate subsidiary to handle its hemp production and also plans to develop a regulatory system that would allow it to license local hemp producers, LaPointe said.

“It was a good project for 2019,” he said. “We learned a lot about the crop.”

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The company expects to farm hemp indoors next year, LaPointe said.

He said the agriculture industry faces many challenges right now, including depressed commodity prices and growing reluctance among young people to become farmers. The average age of an American farmer is 58, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those challenges present opportunities for agricultural corporations like Ho-Chunk Farms, LaPointe said.

“It’s a big opportunity for Ho-Chunk and the Winnebago Tribe,” he said.

Ho-Chunk Inc. owns and operates Indianz.Com. The website is not involved with the corporation's activities or with Ho-Chunk Farms.

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