The progressive and impressive facility is the nation's first USDA inspected processing plant owned and operated by a tribe.

QUAPAW- The Quapaw Tribe opened the doors wide to their new $5 million, 25,000 square-foot Quapaw Processing Plant at last week's Grand Opening.

The progressive and impressive facility is the nation's first USDA inspected processing plant owned and operated by a tribe. The plant is located on tribal land on East 66 Road in Quapaw.

“It's something that I'm super proud of, and I want to thank everyone for helping us to get to today,” Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berrey said at the event.

Under the shade of a giant tent, a huge crowd of dignitaries, cattlemen, associated businesses, local and state government representatives, community members, and tribal leaders from the Ute, Cherokee and Eastern-Shawnee Nations along with members of the Quapaw Tribe gathered to celebrate the completion of the momentous project.

The enthusiasm was palpable among the attendees many of them cowboy hat, ball cap and boot wearing ranchers and agronomists who shared lunch and listened to Berrey and other speakers.

The meat processing facility is part of the Quapaw Tribe's agricultural programs aimed at community and economic development for the tribe and the surrounding communities. The new plant, equipment, and feed lot were funded through a combination of federal grants and tribal contributions.

"It's about building an economy that's agriculture-based that will support local businesses and feed local people," said Berrey. “It's about maximizing the potential with all the agriculture that takes place in this region. It's a business opportunity, and it gives us an outlet for our beef products. It also gives us an opportunity to take other peoples' product and process it. It's both community development and economic development for the tribe and the surrounding communities.”

The Quapaw Tribe's meat processing plant is another initiative come to realization in the tribe's forefront approach to developing agricultural programs. Tours of the plant revealed pristine processing equipment, smokers, a test kitchen, packaging rooms, coolers that hold 200 head, a quality control office, a USDA inspector's office, a training area and more.

The plant currently employs nine, but once at full capacity will employ up to 20 to 30.

The tribe's development of herds of top genetic registered Black Angus cattle and bison led to the logical, but cutting edge move to build the plant to process meat from tribal herds and others.

The tribe uses most of the meat in their restaurants and casinos but also distributes and sells beef and bison products through the tribe's Quapaw Cattle Company and at a store located in the town of Quapaw.

Not only will the processing facility serve the tribe, but also serve in collaboration with the University of Arkansas, Oklahoma State University, Missouri State University and Northeastern Oklahoma University as a training facility for their agricultural departments.

“A long time ago we had this crazy idea to buy some cattle,” Berrey said. “...With the combination of the Spur Ranch genetics and the Malone genetics, we believe we have the most superior genetics available in the midwest for the Angus breed. People are starting to look at our bulls now and at our program.”

The Quapaw now have over 5,000 acres of cattle grazing land, by next year 2,000 acres of row crops.

“This is about getting a healthy, safe, quality product into the food system, but it's also about creating jobs, creating relationships, and making friends. You know really it's about how all of us someway or somehow interact with agriculture,” Berrey said. “The Quapaw Tribe, we're agricultural people from Arkansas, and we just need some natural progression for our people to be involved in agriculture.”

Berrey said the tribe strives to be community minded and sought advice and input on the project's design.

“There's a representative here from Walmart, the meat guy from Walmart, he told us this was the nicest plant he's seen in the United States,” he said. “That gave us a lot of pride.”

The largest retailer in the world's representative was impressed with the Tribe's efforts to provide safe meat free from food borne bacteria.

The Grand Opening event began in prayer by Ranny McWaters who prayed for all in attendance.

Berrey acknowledged the Quapaw Tribe's Business Committee members, including McWatters, T.C. Bear, Marylin Rogers, Tamara Smiley-Reeves, Thomas Mathews, and Zackary Turley.

“Without all your help we could not be here,” Berrey said.

Quapaw Agriculture Director Chris Roper seconded the appreciation of the business committee's support and vision to grow and diversify the Tribe's agricultural programs.

“This facility will do so much for the Quapaw Tribe, neighboring tribes and our employees, and tribe members,” he said. “We're very grateful to the contractors who helped work on the project, the university's that helped us design the project from day one, our Plant Manager, Wade Payne. We are so grateful we were able to hire Wade. We searched for a long time to find the right person, and we feel like we found that person.”

Roper said Payne and his staff had put in numerous hours to get the state-of-the-art processing plant up and running. He said the Quapaw are working with other tribes throughout the nation for agricultural progress as tribes seek ways to mesh traditional food production with modern, progressive enterprises.

“We work with a lot of tribes in Oklahoma and outside of Oklahoma. Food sovereignty is a big initiative for a lot of tribes,” Roper said. “We try to be the leader and try to be the first to do a lot of things, and this is very important to us to be able to help people...I greatly appreciate each and every one of you.”

Berrey thanked National Bison Association's Executive Director Dave Carter, Oklahoma's Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese, Oklahoma Congressman Markwayne Mullin and Senator Jim Inhofe, Missouri Congressman Billy Long, and Ottawa County Commissioner John Clarke for their support of the project.

“It's been very helpful to have support from different government agencies,” Roper said.

Reese addressed the crowd saying, “This is not just a big deal for the Quapaw Tribe, this is a big deal for the state of Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma produces $8 billion worth of Ag commodities every year but does not process nearly half, according to Reese.

“We need to increase Ag processing, so you're not selling buffalo on the hoof, you're selling a steak on a plate,” he said. “It makes all the difference in the world – thank you, and I just want to congratulate you. It's a thrill for me to be here.”

National Bison Association's Executive Director Dave Carter said, “This is a big deal for the Bison community...Last year Congress passed, and the President signed legislation designating Bison as the National Mammal.”

The National Bison Association began a Bison One Million campaign this year to raise the nation's current Bison population from 400,000 to 1 million.

“It's going to take all of us working together to do that., and we talked about the ranchers, tribal producers, and the conservationists, but there's a fourth partner in all of that, it's the consumer,” Carter said. “More and more people out there are discovering this is an awesome tasting meat, it's natural, it's healthy. ”

Carter said the Quapaw's processing plant is so important as a critical link to consumers.

“As we grow the demand for Bison meat, we're also building Bison herds,” he said. “This is a great day and an incredible asset to the Bison community.”

Every Bison raised by the Quapaw Tribe is genetically tested to determine if they are pure bred or crossed with cattle and immediately separated from the pure herd, according to Berrey.

“We want to protect the Bison herd, to ensure the life of the actual species of the American Bison. It's very important to us,” Berrey said.

He said University of Arkansas's director of Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative Janie Hipp has been an advocate for Indian agriculture for many years and helped with the project. She spoke highly of the state-of-the-art plant and of her own excitement.

Hipp said Roper's and Berrey's hard work, leadership, support, dedication, and determination brought the plant to realization.

“We couldn't have had a better tribe to be involved with in the whole country because Chairman Berrey is not going to let anything stop him,” Hipp said. “He knows what's in the heart and mind of the Quapaw people and he strives to make things better for all of us...This plant is so important to Indian country, this is so important to the state of Oklahoma. We've got to have these critical infrastructure components that Ag depends on.”

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.