Yesterday Mark Tilsen, president and CEO of Native American Natural Foods, maker of Tanka Bars, testified before a U.S. Senate agriculture subcommittee on rural jobs about barriers to capital access and the lack of infrastructure to support business in Indian country.
Tilsen pointed to the Farm Bill's 10-percent set-aside for funding regional rural development that could benefit places like Kyle, South Dakota, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Native American Natural Foods' headquarters. Tilsen and business partner Karlene Hunter are co-owners and co-founders of the company, which provides natural, healthy products by adding value to traditional Native food products, using modern scientific methods, the least amount of processing, and the lowest-stress animal handling methods possible.
Tilsen additionally explained his strategy for launching a business in the middle of a food desert to benefit the greater community. “We always welcome the opportunity to share why we created a national brand in the middle of a food desert, and from one of the most geographically and economically isolated places in America,” Tilsen said. “But there is much more to do. The challenge we have is that there are not enough Native American commercial buffalo producers. We have only been able to buy about 20 percent of our meat from Native American producers, and we need to recruit more young Native people into raising buffalo.
“Many of the local producers do not have the required birth to plate animal identification program that provides the necessary transparency to be able to sell their products into the added value natural food channel which is the fastest growing part of the food retail food market,” he said. “This means that there is over $600,000 annually of economic impact from just Native American Natural Foods that could and should be going into the reservation economies.”
Native American Natural Foods' Tanka Bars, buffalo-meat-and-cranberry snacks, are sold on 375 Indian reservations and carried in over 6,000 retail locations in all 50 states.
Despite the company's substantial growth through the recession, Tilsen's business needs help to expand. The federal government needs to follow through on its promises to support rural businesses and job creation, he said.
"We've proven the model works," Tilsen said of building Native American Natural Foods in a rural, Indian community. "We haven't gotten it to scale yet. That's where we need the help."
The May 1 hearing was led by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), chairwoman for the Subcommittee on Jobs, Rural Economic Growth and Energy Innovation. U.S. Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota), member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, welcomed Tilsen to testify at the hearing entitled, “The Importance of Regional Strategies in Rural Economic Development.”
“I appreciated Mr. Tilsen offering his first-hand knowledge and experience to the Ag subcommittee as we consider how to advance economic development strategies in small communities and work with USDA to successfully implement Farm Bill rural development programs,” said Thune. “Mr. Tilsen is a valued member of the South Dakota business community whose demonstrated leadership in the economic development world can help the Ag committee identify areas we can provide better support to stimulate economic growth in rural areas and Indian reservations. I appreciate him testifying before the subcommittee.”
Video of the hearing before the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Jobs, Rural Economic Growth and Energy Innovation can be viewed here: