ONEIDA NATION HOMELAND, N.Y. - Farming and a growing Black Angus herd have
begun to turn a profit for the Oneida Indian Nation, which is now one of
the largest players in the region's agriculture. But for tribal leaders the
enterprise is just as much about reclaiming the Nation's heritage.
"The Oneidas were primarily agricultural people in the days gone by," said
Brian Patterson, a Bear Clan representative to the Men's Council. "Today
our agriculture department serves kind of a dual function. One, it's a
business, meeting the needs of our businesses and other area farmers'
needs. But it also continues to serve the nation and its people through a
cultural component as well."
The nation is building a herd of prime Black Angus beef cattle, which
primarily supplies the high-end restaurants at its rapidly growing Turning
Stone Casino Resort. Much of the corn and barley grown on its 8,000 acres
of farm and grazing land go for feed for the herd, as well as for a cow and
calf boarding operation it runs for area dairy farmers at a site it calls
the "Heifer Hotel."
But the farm also grows traditional crops, the "three sisters," primarily
the original Indian white corn but also the beans and squash, as well as
some tobacco. It is trying to breed the stock back as close to the
traditional strain as possible.
"The white corn is very historic," said Patterson. "We have legends of the
corn spirit, which today is told through the no-face doll. So it's
culturally important. But it is also historically important. This white
corn we have today is the same white corn we carried down to Valley Forge
to the starving troops under General Washington."
In restoring the seed stock, the Oneidas followed the lead of Bear Clan
Mother Marilyn John in collecting kernels carefully saved by Indian
families throughout the Haudenosaunee confederacy and even into the
Southwest. (Their work paralleled efforts of Cornell University's American
Indian agriculture program, which is also back-breeding to the original
"Our corn grows around the cob and there's eight kernels all around, and
they're pretty uniform," said Patterson. "And at the very bottom of an ear
of corn is a single kernel. Our elders, they look at this with a watchful
eye to see how original a strain you have."
The effort survived a disastrous fire in the storage barn last year, which
destroyed millions of dollars of equipment and most of the seed stock.
Michael West, director of the agriculture division, said, "My guys
literally went through the rubble and salvaged the corn that had not been
burnt, in the centers of the bags."
From a quarter-acre crop after the fire, West said the nation now has three
to four acres of white corn, which it hopes will yield six to eight tons.
Although the white corn is primarily for nation members or for sharing with
Native groups for traditional use, such as corn soup, the Oneida
agriculture department also has become a mainstay of the local farm
economy. "We're now the second largest farm in Madison County," said West.
The Black Angus herd started with 150 registered head about four years ago
and now stands at 450. West calls it the second or third largest such herd
in New York state. Most of its beef goes to the restaurants at the Turning
Stone, which favor it for their rib-eye steaks and tenderloins. The rest is
available to Oneida Nation employees in regular "beef sales." With total
control over the beef production, said West, "The beauty of that is we
don't have to worry about the Mad Cow disease. We don't have to worry about
hormones or steroids or pesticides.
"We know exactly what's going into the animals."
The demand from Turning Stone is so high that none of the meat is likely to
come to the general market any time soon, said West. "They need 10 animals
a week," he said. "Right now we're providing them with five or six a
West said the goal was a herd of about 1,000 in three years.
In addition to its own cattle, the farm division runs the "Heifer Hotel" on
Route 46 south of Oneida to serve local dairy farmers. Cows come to calve
and then return to the farms to give milk, while the calves stay for a year
and a half to mature. West said the project has caught on because the cows
raised on the Oneida feed give significantly higher quantities of milk. It
now boards 300 to 400 heifers. In peak months during winter, it houses more
than 700 animals.
The Heifer Hotel provides a feed mixed from byproducts of the Budweiser
breweries and the Oneida's own production. West said the farm was now
harvesting 1,000 acres of feed corn (separately from the traditional white
corn), 200 - 300 acres of oats, 200 - 300 acres of soybeans and over 1,100
acres of hay. (Because the nation doesn't take federal farm subsidies, it
doesn't grow wheat.)
West took on the farm division as what Wall Street would call the nation's
"turn-around specialist." His portfolio also includes the marina and the
care car division. "I am not a farmer," he said. "I kind of got thrown into
this because I'm a businessman." When he took over several years ago, he
said, the agriculture department "was not performing at peak capacity."
He started doing work in-house that previously had been subcontracted to
different local farmers. The staff of eight, with part-time help at peak
periods, now does all the plowing, sowing and harvesting. He lowered a
previously high mortality rate by pushing the calving season later into the
spring. Previously, he said, the unpredictable New York weather was causing
many new-borns to contract pneumonia.
In addition, he said, a program of triple-tagging the calves at birth ended
what might have been a steady depletion through theft. Patterson noted that
the herd had not been growing for several years, contrary to its natural
course. The new management methods are now producing an overall profit,
even if a small one.
This professional footing extends to the traditional crops, which are now
tended by paid help instead of volunteers. It's another demonstration that
sound business can also foster tribal culture.