USDA official lauds Lower Brule plantPopcorn operation good example for others to follow, Merrigan says.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
LOWER BRULE — Popcorn probably doesn’t often serve as a symbol of economic development.
But when Deputy U.S. Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan toured the Lakota Foods facility Thursday in Lower Brule, that’s exactly what she saw.
Lakota Foods is the first and only American Indian owned and operated business to produce, process, package and market popcorn.
Businesses like it could potentially have a “transformative” effect on Indian reservations across the country because of their potential to add jobs and pump money into the local economy, Merrigan said.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said, alluding to high unemployment rates and widespread poverty that plague many Indian reservations. “But you don’t just turn things around overnight.”
Merrigan was accompanied by about 20 other people on her tour, including South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones.
Lakota Foods has eight full-time employees and three to four part-time employees, said Lee Brannan, general manager.
Brannan spoke with Merrigan on an observation deck above the plant’s floor while workers below took bag after bag of popcorn off the assembly line.
Because Lakota Foods can only afford to employ enough people for one shift, popcorn production is only at one-third of its potential, Brannan told Merrigan. The company produces approximately 3,000 bags per hour, or about 500,000 pounds of popcorn per year.
“Are we at the level where we’re profitable? No,” he said. “But we’re gaining every year.”
With more capital, the company could employ as many as 50 people to staff three shifts, potentially tripling production, Brannan said.
The Lower Brule Tribe, located in central South Dakota along the Missouri River, and its tribal-run farm corporation have invested more than $2 million into Lakota Foods, Brannan said.
“It would be an economic boom for this community,” he said.
Lakota Foods, though a small operation, is a “great example” of a business producing a value-added product, Merrigan said.
“It’s just what we’re trying to do across the nation with value-added products.”
Any manufacturing process that increases the value of a primary agricultural commodity, such as corn in Lakota Food’s case, is considered value-added.
Merrigan, in an interview with The Daily Republic following the tour, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, which helps rural businesses get a guaranteed quality loan, could potentially help Lakota Foods expand.
The USDA needs to better communicate the programs it has available to assist producers and operators on Indian reservations across South Dakota and the rest of the country, Merrigan said.
Merrigan met with Lower Brule Tribal Chairman Michael Jandreau and other tribal leaders after touring Lakota Foods. She said the USDA, at its highest levels, has taken a “renewed interest in programs that benefit Indian country.”
“We want to increase our outreach and assist in the dialogue,” she said. “This is something the president wants to do, it’s something (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) wants to do.”