Just in time for American Heart Month, Native American-owned KivaSun has added antibiotic free, no added hormone bison jerky to its product line. Bison, “the new beef,” is higher in protein and lower in fat than beef, pork, or chicken and is an excellent source of iron, zinc and B vitamins, according to the company. KivaSun’s bison jerky is also nitrate and gluten free and contains no MSG.
The portable, great-tasting jerky is perfect for athletes and makes a great snack for kids. KivaSun founder Notah Begay III, Navajo/San Felipe/Isleta, is a four-time PGA Tour Winner and director of the NB3 Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established dedicated to reducing childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. “A big part of the NB3 Foundation’s NativeFIT program is understanding that what you eat is just as important as exercise. Bison is the healthiest protein on the market and the more awareness KivaSun can create around the nutritional aspects of what we eat the easier is becomes for the NB3 Foundation to get across its message,” says Begay. Some of the proceeds from KivaSun sales go to support the NB3 Foundation.
KivaSun was established in 2010 as a wholesaler of fresh and frozen bison steaks, bison burgers, bison dogs, and bison chili. The company is anticipating $10 million in sales in 2016, a 20 percent to 30 percent increase over 2015, says Begay.
KivaSun’s bison is raised on farms in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.
“We are trying to source as many animals from Native lands as possible. Our goal is to one day be sourcing 100 percent of our raw material from Native sources. One of my goals has always been to create ‘win-win’ situations for tribes and this is a perfect example. If a tribe that produces bison is looking for a consistent buyer, KivaSun can be that consistent buyer year in and year out. Literally, no matter how many animals a tribe wants to produce, we are interested in buying every single animal that the tribe wants to sell commercially and not keep for ceremonial purposes or for internal tribal food programs,” Begay explains.
But there’s a lot more to jerky than just growing bison. “The jerky is processed and packaged on the west coast. From product development, to packaging, to fulfillment and selling, the number of steps involved in getting a product to market is overwhelming. My hope is that more Native-owned food companies follow the lead of companies like KivaSun and Tanka Bar who have met the challenge of getting their products to market successfully. We are working with a couple of Native-owned food companies that have fantastic raw materials with the hopes of seeing more Native food companies represented at major retailers.” KivaSun’s bison jerky differs from Tanka Bars in that the latter contains cranberries. Both, however, come in different flavors, with KivaSun’s jerky available in Original and Hatch Chili.
KivaSun has been remarkably successful in getting its products to market, capturing retailers including Costco and Walmart. “At the end of the day, no matter how good your story might be, you have to have a product that is of the highest quality, scalable and competitive on price. It is that simple. With that in mind, we worked very hard to create an efficient supply chain so that we could be competitive on price. We are also selling a product that is directly in line with consumer demand; antibiotic free and no added hormone products that come from an authentic source,” explains Begay.
KivaSun’s motto is “Respect the Land. Revere the Food. Gather Together.” Begay says, “For centuries food has been a social and cultural component of American Indian tradition. American Indian people ‘gather’ to celebrate their cultural traditions and perpetuate the belief systems that sustain us. ‘Gathering’ to celebrate or simply ‘gathering’ the family for dinner are elements that should be promoted amidst society’s current mindset of ‘quicker is better.’ People around the world could stand to ‘gather’ more and our food is a great place to start.”
Begay and KivaSun have taken the concept of gathering even further, co-sponsoring and participating in last October’s Fertile Ground Funders’ Roundtable organized by by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association with the assistance of Echo Hawk Consulting. The event brought together dozens of major philanthropic organizations to talk about collaborating to address urgent nutritional, health and other needs in Indian country.
Improving nutrition in Indian country has been a long-term goal of the company. Begay says, “We worked for two years to get bison back into the commodity package for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. We have been shipping product since October of 2015 and have talked with USDA about making bison a consistent item in the food basket.”