Meat processing facility expected to open in April

Deputy Chief Bryan Warner, left, and Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. tour the building that will house a Cherokee Nation meat processing facility, which is expected to open in April. 

TAHLEQUAH – Working past some delays due to the pandemic, the Cherokee Nation is planning to open its meat processing facility in the coming weeks with limited operations.

Todd Enlow, answering questions from the Tribal Council’s Resource Committee, mentioned a probable “April time frame” for the plant’s opening.

Enlow said an additional 3,000 feet will include freezer space to reduce losses, resulting in a total floor space of 15,000 feet.

“We chose to go with a custom processing plant,” Enlow said.

With custom processing, CN citizens and non-citizens can bring cows or pigs to the facility to be processed, and the meat is returned to the customer. The plant is configured to process cattle, pigs and deer. It will also be able to process bison in anticipation of harvests from the CN buffalo herd.

“That resulted in us redesigning the whole structural steel system to be able to process a fully grown bull buffalo – it needs to be 20 feet tall,” Enlow said. “We’re trying to grow the herd and manage it properly so that we can actually begin to process meat on a quarterly basis, and augment or supplement either elder nutrition programs or food distribution programs.”

Enlow used an analogy of “crawl, walk, run” to explain that processing operations would start on a limited scale, but eventually expand.

“The crawl is the custom processing,” he said. “Initially, this will feel a little small for the size of the building. We have enough allocation to initially staff 10 people. We will be open to citizens. We are looking at the pricing structure. We will be open to the public, but there will be a discount for Cherokee citizens. Someone not affiliated with the Cherokee Nation will pay a higher rate than a Cherokee citizen.”

After a few months of operation and experience, the CN can move toward the “walk.”

Enlow said the CN could opt for a state-inspected facility, which would permit the sale of its meat products throughout Oklahoma, or a USDA-inspected site, which could sell its products nationwide.

“USDA requires an onsite inspector,” Enlow said. “They come in and have a full-blown office inside that facility. We could sell and process that meat outside the state of Oklahoma. That facility is designed for us to go to USDA. We won’t initially use it, but we want to make sure we can process and take the steps to maintain good safety and good protocols to make sure we do this correctly.”

Plans for a meat processing facility were first announced by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner on Oct. 9, 2020. It is sited on tribal land west of Tahlequah.

Initial plans called for a gradual growth of the operations, but called for seven workers and 12,000 square feet instead of 10 employees and 15,000 square feet. The early estimates also expected a cost of about $1 million.

With the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting food shipments when it first struck, the CN saw advantages to having access to its own meat supply when citizens might face food insecurities.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, beef and other meat sources were harder to supply to elders through emergency food distributions, and opening a meat processing facility will help sustain foods for Cherokee citizens and bring in jobs and agricultural opportunities for the Tribe,” a written CN announcement stated.