Officials celebrate opening of meat processing plant

Photo caption: The ribbon is cut to officially open the new Meat Processing Facility in Hominy on Dec. 28, 2020. CODY HAMMER/Osage News

HOMINY, Okla. – Thanks to 2020 federal funding available through the Coronavirus Assistance, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the Osage Nation is pursuing food security endeavors with its newly-completed meat processing plant designed to provide fresh locally-raised meat.

On Dec. 28, tribal government, construction professionals and community members celebrated the completion of the Nation’s approximately 20,000 square-foot meat processing plant built north of downtown Hominy in the Nation’s industrial park off State Highway 99.

Nation officials say the plant operations will address food security issues felt by the Nation, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020 and impacted chain and supply of food distribution. The plant opening comes just as construction was also completed on a new greenhouse and multipurpose building structures at the Nation-owned Harvest Land previously known as Bird Creek Farms in Pawhuska on Dec. 21. The Nation also used a portion of its CARES Act funding to build those facilities as part of recommendations made by the Executive Branch's task force formed to administer the Nation’s CARES Act funding.

Casey Johnson, director of operations for the Executive Branch, recalled a spring day last year when his office received word from the Wahzhazhe Early Learning Academy sites in Fairfax and Hominy that there was no meat available for student lunches.

“The supply chain had been disrupted because of (COVID-19),” Johnson said. “So, we couldn’t hardly find any meat for our kids. It was affecting our children, then it was going to start affecting our elders, so that was one of the things that got us to thinking about if meat prices go through the roof, how are we going to take care of all of our folks?” He also noted there is a schedule delay in meat processing at other local processing businesses due to other standing butcher reservations, which does not help the lack of fresh meat situation for ON entities including those serving children and Elder Nutrition (Title IV) weekday lunch meals.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear also recalled the earlier months of the pandemic, which reached Oklahoma in March 2020, prompting shortages of grocery foods and merchandise including toilet paper and cleaning supplies in Osage County.

“Fortunately, there was some help in the form of stimulus monies and we plugged it into a plan we had been looking for development for several years,” Standing Bear said of the CARES Act application opportunity, which his branch sought. “In fact, it was this week (five years ago) when we found out (the now-named Osage Nation) Ranch was coming up for sale and Assistant Chief (Raymond) Red Corn and I were on the phone every day through Christmas ... getting things ready to present to the Osage Congress.”

“In that short time, it was approved. And so, when Casey told me told me about this shortage of meat, there was no meat for our children and our programs, I said ‘What are you talking about? A little over five miles from here, we’ve got 43,000 acres of land and we’ve got several thousand cattle and about 100 bison.’ And we can’t use that, we have to go through the USDA certified process, there’s a lot of rules when you put food through the stream of commerce.”

Standing Bear applauded the brainstorming and work efforts of the COVID-19 task force comprised of ON government employees formed to administer the CARES Act funding awarded to the Nation in 2020, which totaled more than $44 million. “They grabbed hold of this situation and then they found top-notch contractors ... who had experience in putting projects together quickly and through the (Nation and federal spending) rules we have in place. We have come in just a few short months from not having anything like this to what we’re going to see today ... The results will speak for themselves, we’re going to make sure we have plenty of meat for our people, we’re taking care of ourselves and we must not forget we are going to take care of our neighbors. I’ve talked to the Pawnee Nation across the way, President (Walter) Echo-hawk, we’re going to keep a good alliance there. They have cattle there, if they want to come this way, we’re going to welcome them. The Kaw Nation, same thing there, the other tribes... and the local community here. We’re going to do the best we can, we’re going to take care of our Osage people first, our Osage families - Not only here with the meat, but with what we are producing at the farm,” referring to the Harvest Land in Pawhuska.

“We have a long way to go, farming and processing is hard work,” Standing Bear said. “People that work here are going to be paid well and they’re going to work hard for us and we must all support them ... I look forward to seeing this in the future when we can look back and say ‘we were there, we went forward, we’re taking care of each other, which is what sovereignty is all about.”

Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt acknowledged “the dark times upon us now” with people, including Osages, who have been sick with COVID-19 and others, especially those from other Native American nations “that we have relationships with,” who have passed away as a result. “Our prayers are with you, our thoughts, my colleagues and I continue to think about all that ... we just want to say we are proud of the Osage Nation, we are proud of the work you have done. It is an exciting time to continue to move forward.”

Pratt thanked the COVID-19 Task Force for their work, noting the Congress passed ONCR 20-32 (sponsored by Second Congressional Speaker Jodie Revard) which is “a resolution to support and express appreciation for the COVID-19 Task Force for their dedication and service in administering emergency federal funding during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.” The resolution passed 12-0 during the 2020 Tzi-Zho Session.

James Weigant, director of the Nation’s Housing Department and chairman/ coordinator of the COVID-19 Task Force, recalled he and fellow employees “were able to see past the chaos of this pandemic and find a solid response plan that could be put into place quickly and responsibly,” which included food security. “The pandemic quickly and dreadfully amplified our food desert difficulties. An outbreak of COVID in a packing plant in Omaha (Neb.) or Chicago can cause a break in the food supply that rippled across the entire county. These breakdowns hit hardest in food-insecure areas like Osage County,” he said.

“Osage County has some of the finest stock grazing country around and we own 43,000 acres of it at our (ON) ranch. Our cattle and bison thrive out there, we have the first links of a food supply chain staring right at us. CARES Act funding then allowed us to create the next link, at the (ON) ranch, we built miles of fencing to protect our herd, we bought additional cattle and bison to serve as inputs for this processing plant to bolster our food supply and help with sustainability. Equipment and facilities were then procured to get these animals finished and ready to process, ready to nourish our people. And then came the final link, this processing plant behind us here today. Osage beef on Osage ground will now be delivered to Osage dining tables. All this to get us through this pandemic today and then remain a source of pride for years and years to come.”

Jann Hayman, director of the Nation’s Department of Natural Resources and fellow task force member, thanked everyone that worked with the group, noting several relationships between the Nation and other entities and individuals were built in support of the plant project and Harvest Land. “I think we’re better people because of this. I think every Osage, as an Osage employee and as a person, can be proud of this facility because it’s going to do so much good for the community, both Osage and everyone else, and for other tribal nations. I’m blessed to be a part of it and I’m grateful for this opportunity to be entrusted, both with myself and my staff, to be a part of this.”

Ross Smith, a project manager for the Nation’s Tribal Development and Land Acquisition Department said the meat processing plant was a six-month project versus a similar project which can take two years to plan and build due to the deadline at the time to spend CARES Act funding by year’s end. He said the Nation worked with Tulsa firms Wallace Engineering, Blue River Architects and Builders Unlimited Inc. to build the plant.           

Steve Wright, Builders Unlimited president, said the facility “has the capacity to store large quantities of meat in bulk, it also has the capacity to provide processing on a large scale of bison, cattle, hogs and seasonal deer hunting processing to help as well. It also has a facility within itself to provide retail sales, smoked and packaged products for the future such as Slim Jims – Osage-branded products of that sort. It was an honor to have been a part of these projects and the vision that I know will provide many opportunities at all levels for many years to come.”

After the tribal and building officials spoke, the group gathered in front of the plant for the ribbon cutting to celebrate the building’s completion with those in attendance applauding.