Get to know the Flower Hill Institute
Flower Hill Institute is the Technical Assistance Coordinator for the USDA's Meat and Poultry Processing Capacity - Technical Assistance (MPPTA) Program.By Sam Gazdziak
Earlier this year, the USDA announced several supply chain initiative programs, including the Meat and Poultry Inspection Readiness Grant (MPIRG) Program and the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program (MPPEP). The USDA's Meat and Poultry Processing Capacity - Technical Assistance (MPPTA) Program was established to ensure that the participants in these initiatives would have access to technical assistance (TA) to support their project development and success.
In March 2022, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) identified several organizations to serve as TA providers. Along with AAMP, providers included Flower Hill Institute, Oregon State University – Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, Intertribal Agriculture Council, American Meat Science Association and Agricultural Utilization Research Institute. Flower Hill Institute was also chosen as the overall Technical Assistance Coordinator for the MPPTA Program, working closely with AMS and the TA Providers to connect meat and poultry processors, USDA grant applicants, and grant-funded project managers to the resources and expertise best suited to support a project's needs.
Flower Hill is a native-owned, community-directed nonprofit organization. Roger Fragua, co-founder of Flower Hill, serves as Executive Director. The organization's four pillars of work are: cultural preservation, youth & STEM/TEK education, food & agriculture, and climate resilience. It has established programs to preserve Native culture and language, hosted youth camps, promote sustainability, and help tribal communities adapt to climate change. Those four pillars are all interconnected, and much of Flower Hill's efforts get back to agriculture in one form or another.
For years, Flower Hill has been active in working on food security and food sovereignty issues on tribal lands. Carter and Roper have worked with several tribes, including the Quapaw and Osage tribes, in building meat processing plants to help improve the availability of food to residents. When the USDA made the commitment of offering $1 billion for grants and loans to the meat-processing community, Flower Hill's past experience made it a good fit to serve as the TA Coordinator.
“When they put together Flower Hill, they really brought on a sort of a who's who of tribal leadership to be on the board of directors,” says Dave Carter, who along with Chris Roper serves as MPPTA Technical Assistance Directors.
“We've broadened the technical assistance that we were already doing within Indian country and within various associations, and teaming up with USDA has just enhanced our network, working with groups like AAMP, the Indigenous Ag Council, AMSA, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute,” Roper explains.
Carter spent more than 20 years as the Executive Director of the National Bison Association and has a great deal of marketing experience in and around various aspects of the meat industry. He notes that the largest bison processing operation in the country would still be considered a small plant by USDA standards, so he has seen first-hand the need for infrastructure beyond the traditional supply chains when it comes to specialty or niche food products.
“What's been so frustrating is you have tribes where cattle and bison are a huge part of their culture and their production. And yet, through their programs for school lunch or eldercare, they're just getting USDA commodities that are coming in from somewhere else. And so there's a lot of work to take a look at how do they close that gap and close that circle,” he says.
Looking beyond the Native community, Carter sees an increased demand for food that has fewer food miles – i.e., food that was locally produced rather than shipped hundreds of miles – and increased transparency. “I think we can work to develop not just meat processing facilities, but enterprises, that there's a huge opportunity to connect the producer with their customers,” he adds.
Roper is experienced in developing large commercial projects, and in recent years meat processing has been a focus of his work. In 2016, he worked with the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma to improve the tribe's access to affordable meat. Flower Hill developed several agriculture programs there, including cattle raising. The livestock was shipped to a feedlot in Nebraska for finishing and a plant in northeast Colorado for processing. The meat was then sent to a dry ager in Kansas City before being returned to the reservation for distribution.
“Obviously transportation costs back then were really adding to the overall operational costs of our program,” Roper says. The decision was made to work with Oklahoma processors, which was a cheaper alternative, but the quality and service wasn't as good as it was with the Colorado processor. So the decision was made to bring the meat processing in-house and to build a plant at the reservation.
“I knew how to build buildings, I knew I knew how to develop projects. That was second nature to me. But obviously, the meat processing end of it, I had to do a lot of learning,” Roper says. “So I spent quite a bit of time touring universities, food processing facilities, and food science programs all over the country.”
Thanks to the facility that was built, cattle now can be fed, finished and led into the processing facility without ever having to set foot on a truck. The change has eliminated transportation costs as well as improved control of the humane handling aspects. The Quapaw facility is SQF certified and sends products to a number of nationwide retailers like Walmart and Bass Pro Shops. It also has private label contracts with about 100 different ranchers and farmers. That facility was the first tribal meat processing plant and established a model that other tribes have successfully used.
Flower Hill's experiences in helping tribes develop their own processing plants has also led to new relationships. Roper has worked on several projects with NMPAN and other organizations and looks forward to expanding those relationships in the future.
“If Dave and I don't have the answers, then we try to reach out to other groups like you all [at AAMP] and try to connect people where they need to be to get the right answers. We know that we don't know everything, but we hope that someone in our group can help get answers to the people that need it,” Roper says.
“The thing that I get excited about is the breadth of the network,” Carter adds. “How do we help these projects all the way through the grant submission process to, if they're doing a branded product, how do they get into the marketplace? Or how do they address the distribution? So the network that has come together on this project, I think, has a lot of valuable resources.”
AAMP is thrilled to be a part of this program and look forward to working with our new colleagues. For more information about the MPTTA Program, please visit https://flowerhill.institute/usda-mppta.