Osage Nation moves to enhance its food supply

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Osage Nation cut the ribbon on Dec. 21 to mark completion of construction on buildings at its Harvest Land vegetable production facility in Pawhuska.

Harvest Land is the new name for the upgraded version of what was previously Bird Creek Farms.

The new buildings include a 42,000-square-foot greenhouse area and a 44,000-square-foot programs building that contains space for an aquaponics operation and for food processing.

The new buildings at Harvest Land are just one element of a plan to address the Osage Nation's desire for a stable, year-round food supply chain. The tribe was also scheduled Dec. 28 to cut the ribbon on a 19,000-square-foot meat processing plant at Hominy that is intended to provide a fresh supply of locally raised beef, bison and pork. The Osage Nation has a 43,000-acre ranch west of Pawhuska where bison and cattle are raised. 

Osage Congressman Scott BigHorse said at the Harvest Land ribbon cutting that the new facilities address a long-standing concern of his.

"This is a dream come true for me, because I have been worried to death for about the past decade about food insecurity," BigHorse said. He briefly described his personal experiences with difficulty in finding sufficient offerings of high quality food products in Pawhuska.

"Chief, I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, through God almighty, that you've done what you've done," BigHorse said to Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.

Standing Bear said the new buildings were meant to be impressive, but he added that the Osage Nation has "a long way to go" to make its food security concept work.

The immediate context for the development of the new food production facilities is federal funding made available through the federal Coronavirus Assistance, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Standing Bear noted that the money came directly to the tribe, rather than being passed through elements of the federal bureaucracy, and Osage leadership was able to act expeditiously to capitalize on the opportunity.

The larger context, with regard to food security, is that grocery stores in Barnsdall and Hominy have closed in recent years and Pawhuska has one grocery store, as well as some grocery products offered in stores such as Family Dollar and Dollar General.

James Weigant, the director of Housing for the Osage Nation and the person who headed up a coronavirus task force formed by Standing Bear, voiced concern that "most of Osage County is a food desert."

Weigant said the construction of the new food production facilities was just one element of the Osage Nation's multi-pronged response to COVID-19. The Nation also used CARES Act funding to expand broadband Internet capacity in Pawhuska and to make free Wi-Fi available in downtown Pawhuska, he said.

The CARES Act funding had to be spent before the end of 2020, and participants in the Dec. 21 ribbon cutting at Harvest Land talked about the challenge of putting up three new buildings (two in Pawhuska and one in Hominy) in a little more than half a year.

Project Manager Ross Smith said the expedited timeline is something "that doesn't normally happen" in the construction business.

With rain days taken into account, actual construction of about $13 million of buildings reportedly took roughly four months.