Angus cattle roam Quapaw tribal lands (Courtesy Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma)
When the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma entered the agriculture business, it was sending cattle to Nebraska to be fed and to Colorado to be processed. “It was costing us over a dollar a pound in transportation,” said John L. Berrey, Chairman of the Quapaw Tribe.
The tribe recently built its own feed and processing plant to employ its own people, and assert total control of quality and cleanliness. It’s the first USDA-inspected processing plant on a reservation that’s owned and operated by a tribe. As a USDA-inspected facility, meat can be shipped across state lines and sold in public markets.
“We looked at the opportunity to vertically integrate our businesses through agriculture, beef and bison, which we were already selling in our restaurants and at our large casino resort [Downstream Casino Resort]. With a built-in market, it lessened our risk,” Berrey said.
The processing plant and feeding facility have been open for about six months. The tribe is still capturing its capital investment. “But we’re on a trajectory for it to become 15-20 percent of the total revenue for the tribe,” Berrey said.
Native Business Magazine™ spoke with Berrey about the tribe’s vertical integration model and reclaiming sovereignty of their agriculture and ranching needs.
NBM: Can you speak to your built-in market?
Berrey: We have five restaurants, including a steakhouse [Red Oak Steakhouse], buffet and big fast food facility. We also have convenience stores and Meals on Wheels. We are purchasing and selling large quantities of beef and bison.
NBM: Have you expanded with a larger distribution model?
Berrey: We’ve expanded tremendously just in the last five years. We now have several thousand acres of crop lands. We raise our own feed for our bison and beef.
We have our own feeding facility where we can prep them before sending them to the processing facility.
We have a state-of-the-art, USDA-inspected bison, beef and pork facility that not only services our needs, but now we have customers regionally that want to have their own meats for their own markets.
We custom-process for several small- to medium-sized regional branches that already have a customer base—whether it’s Bass Pro Shops or some grocery chain. We actually do a lot of bison for the Colorado market for one of our customers.
NBM: How many people do the Quapaw Tribe Agriculture Program and Quapaw Cattle Company employ?
Berrey: We employ 15 people in the processing and feeding facility. The best thing about it is we built it in such a way that we use people from the University of Arkansas, Oklahoma State University, Northeast Oklahoma A&M, and Missouri State University to get their input on our design.
Within our processing plant, we also have a classroom. Classes can be in carcass study and grading. Universities are using the test kitchen and laboratory. It’s a community effort. We not only help the community education-wise and job-wise, but it’s creating opportunities for young people who want to be involved in agriculture.
NBM: What is the Quapaw approach to GMOs and organic versus conventional crops?
Berrey: We have several greenhouses within which we grow a lot of heirloom vegetables for our restaurants and resorts. Those are all organic. We don’t use chemical sprays. We use natural methods for insect repellent and for fertilizer. Most plants that go into our high-end restaurants are part of that.
It’s been difficult to source organic material for our feed. It’s a difficult process to get certified organic feed for beef and bison. We have recently located some non-GMO corn and other commodities that we are integrating into our feeding plan. Our goal over time is to offer a non-GMO fed protein—either bison or beef. It’s a process of sourcing it and getting all of the certifications.
All of our beef and bison are certified non-hormone. It costs us about 150 lbs. per steer not inject a hormone capsule into their bloodstream when they’re yearlings which increases the weight of the animal.
NBM: What other agricultural products does the Quapaw Tribe produce?
Berrey: A lot of our commodities like corn, soybeans, and wheat that we grow now, we either use them in our feeding facility as part of the rations for our animals or we sell it on the commodities market. We take that money and roll it into another feed product that would go into our animals. It’s a very vertically integrated process.
Honey is becoming a huge product for us with well over a hundred hives. Our goal is to have a thousand hives. We harvest the honey twice a year. We use it in our restaurants for cooking. We sell it retail. It has a lot of health benefits for people with allergies. It’s really taking off.
It’s all local honey, and we take very good care of our bees and our hives. We’re very good at extracting the honey without disrupting the hives. We harvest it twice a year: in the spring and in the fall. The honey has many different colors and flavors depending on the season. It’s becoming a very important part of our agricultural business and is a very important part of our restaurants. A lot of our recipes use the product.
We import coffee beans from throughout the world. We have a very talented coffee roaster and barista. We have our own brand of Quapaw coffee with seasonal flavors that we promote and sell. Our hotels, casino, and offices all use this proprietary coffee, which has a very good flavor and is becoming more and more a driver in our economy.
As part of our beef and bison operation, we do a lot of beef jerky, beef stick, bison stick, bison jerky. It flies off the shelf. It’s got a long shelf life. It’s got about an 80% margin in terms of the economics of the stick.
We’re constantly looking at what we buy and what we sell and how we can integrate our agricultural businesses to fill product needs and then add value to those products to make more money on those margins.