South Dakota popcorn manufacturer making a name for itselfLOWER BRULE, S.D. (AP) — Tucked away in central South Dakota, Lakota Foods may not yet compete with popcorn's biggest brand names, but the tribal-owned popcorn manufacturer is gaining lots of accolades from agriculture officials for its products and job opportunities.
By: KRISTI EATON,Associated Press, Associated Press
LOWER BRULE, S.D. (AP) — Tucked away in central South Dakota, Lakota Foods may not yet compete with popcorn's biggest brand names, but the tribal-owned popcorn manufacturer is gaining lots of accolades from agriculture officials for its products and job opportunities.
Situated on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, Lakota Foods is the first and only Native American-owned company that grows, packages and distributes popcorn — about 17 million pounds each year.
"It's unique because it's raised, cleaned and packaged right here in South Dakota, but people don't realize that and there are other people trying to copy it," Barry Heiss, manager of the Lower Brule Farm Corp., said.
The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe started the business about seven years ago. It buys the popcorn seed and then raises it on 8,000 acres of irrigated land, Heiss said.
In addition to selling a variety of popcorn flavors on its website and at grocery stores throughout the Midwest, Lakota Foods provides popcorn to major manufacturers like ConAgra Foods and American Popcorn Company who sell it.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan recently toured the Lakota Foods plant while learning about South Dakota's agriculture industry.
"We're encouraging producers to come up with value-added products as seen here with this delicious popcorn, so more of that retail food dollar goes back to the community where the crop was produced," Merrigan said after touring the facility and trying several varieties of popcorn. Value-added products are basic products that increase in value during the manufacturing process.
Merrigan also boasted about the company bringing jobs to tribal members, something desperately needed in South Dakota's Indian Country.
But Lakota Foods has still not reached profitability, and Heiss believes it could be another several years before the company is in the black. The tribe has invested nearly $3 million in the business during the past five years, he said.
Still, he adds, making tons of money has never been what the company is about.
"Our tribal chairman and council says if we can break even and employ people, tribal members, to be self-sustaining and create job opportunities, (that's) the main No. 1 priority," he said. "If the company breaks even and employs people, that's our mission. And naturally it would just be the gravy if it became profitable, but profit in the industry eyes is different than what it is here."
Lee Brennan, general manager for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said Lakota Foods employs eight full-time workers.
Shawn Smith, 55, is one of those workers. Smith has been the office manager for the past year and a half.
"It's unique," she said of the business model. "I think every rez should have some sort of industry going, and I think the company can really go places if we learn how to mass produce."
Smith runs the office, but is also able to help with the popcorn's production at times, she said. Her favorite task is taste-testing and critiquing the popcorn at the start of every new batch.
"I think that's the good part, because then it's kind of personal," she said.