When I visited Quapaw Nation's beef processing plant in 2018, it was less than a year old. The building was still pretty shiny and cattle and bison grazed on a vast field. They had a dozen or so employees and were in the process of getting one of the first Native Americans — a young Quapaw man — to be trained as a USDA meat inspector. Today, a lot has changed.
"So,we've been extremely busy," said Chairman John Berrey. "We could use more meat cutters. We're at full capacity right now and have been throughout the pandemic."
Berrey has been the Chairman of the Quapaw Nation for 19 years now. An elder asked him to lead the tribe.
"In our culture when someone asks you, you can't turn them down," explained Berrey.
The tribe didn't have many business ventures when he started, he says. Now, they're building a new casino, they have a cattle business and they have an MOU with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a nearby superfund site. They also have the processing plant.
The Quapaw Cattle Company is just one of the businesses that's kept income coming into the tribe during the pandemic. One of their casinos has opened up, but Berrey says income from the plant has helped. It's provided jobs to Quapaw citizens and non-citizens.
Quapaw Nation started their agricultural program in 2010 to exert food sovereignty and produce and meat for its citizens. It quickly grew. They added a coffee roasting business and a brewery. But, during the pandemic, the Nation's beef processing plant can't keep up with the demand needed for tribal citizens and outside ranches needing a place to get their product from farm to table.
Chris Roper, the tribe's agricultural director, says they're very busy.
"We went from being booked out about 60 days to being booked through next spring of 2021," he explained
Meaning that if you're a rancher in Arkansas, Missouri, or Kansas looking for a place to process your cattle, Quapaw's plant has a waiting list.
Roper says he's looking to hire more people, increase production and add another smoker to sell beef jerky and meat sticks.They have the capacity to process 200 head of cattle each week, but without the staff, they're only up to 70. Add on top of that the stress of working during a pandemic. So, far, Roper says no one has gotten sick.
"We don't allow any outside guests into the plant at all, we're taking temperatures on everyone every morning when they get there, everyone is wearing face masks," said Roper of the safety measure they're abiding by.
"We've had to really implement a lot of different measures to keep our own employees safe and try to keep products safe."
Roper says they don't have enough applicants. The works can be grueling, the temperature sits at 38 degrees Fahrenheit and some people get squeamish.
Quapaw Nation's Agricultural department raises their own vegetables, processes their own meat, and produces their own honey for the restaurants in the three casinos they own and operate. They still do that but they added Pearson Ranch-which supplies jerky and meat sticks to Bass Pro shops and other midsize to large ranches that supply grocery stores in the region. Chairman Berrey says the income from the plant has helped offset the revenue they lost when their casinos were closed.
"We've been fortunate in that we've been able to keep some revenue coming in and services going," explained Berrey. "We've had the furlough people and things like that, but things are getting somewhat back to normal."
He says they're still very cautious because of the local increases in positives on COVID-19 in Ottawa County.
Both Chairman Berrey and Roper say the margins are really tight when it comes to profit for the tribe. -it's a tough business. But Roper says, it's not all about that right now
"The services we provide and the jobs we provide far outweigh any money that we make," said Roper.
"Especially during this pandemic, when a lot of the grocery stores did not have any meat on their shelves, we were able to maintain a steady supply of meat in our communities and in our store."
Roper says he's still looking to hire more people and expand the plant. For now, they'll continue to operate following CDC guidelines and keep the meat in stores and tables during the pandemic and for some time afterwards.