Cheyenne River Buffalo Authority Corporation: Offering local flavors
Jayme Murray ranches with his family in Ziebach County, South Dakota. As a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, his ancestral roots are deep. Recently, new opportunities have opened doors for him to tell his story, and that of the Cheyenne River Buffalo Authority Corporation (CRBAC) which he has managed for the past four years.
“I grew up on a cow calf ranch between Isabel and Eagle Butte on the Moreau River,” he said. “My parents’ grand and great-grandparents homesteaded not far south of here on the Cheyenne River. I got a degree in Range Science at South Dakota State and spent twenty years working for the BIA. I certainly didn’t start out in the buffalo business, but we live just three miles from the CRBAC’s main corral. When the Tribe approached me about taking on the management of the buffalo herd I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. I’ve learned a lot from people who know a lot more than I do!”
The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe acquired their first buffalo in 1976, and has maintained a herd ever since, with up to 3,500 head at one point. Murray said they currently run around 1,100 head of buffalo, including butcher animals and their cow herd. The CRBAC is an independent business, owned by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, but with its own board of directors. It is a tribally chartered corporation located on the reservation.
In February of 2021 the CRBAC purchased Westside Meats in Mobridge, South Dakota. Westside has served the greater Mobridge area for over forty years as a custom meat processing facility. Murray said the CRBAC goals in purchasing the business were twofold. First, they knew what an important part of the local community the business played, and secondly, they could see it as a way to open doors for more opportunities for marketing their own meat.
“Westside has been a very good business for this area for a long time and we wanted to keep the same quality and custom processing services available locally,” he said. “There is definitely a need for a local butcher shop here. We also knew that being able to process our own buffalo would be a great thing for us. It gave us the means to increase our buffalo meat sales and have a value added product that we could ship to customers. We are truly unique in that we own our buffalo from the time they are born until they are in the package.”
Murray said that they are working together with South Dakota’s tech schools to give young people opportunities to learn the meat cutting profession hands-on at Westside.
“There’s a science and an art to butchering; it’s definitely fun to watch someone who knows their trade at work,” he said. “We had an awesome young man work for us recently and we hope to bring him back when he’s done with school.”
CRBAC recently purchased a building in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, with plans to open a second storefront where they will retail meats processed at Westside. It’s one more step toward supplying local residents with locally grown food.
And now that they have their own processing facility, the CRBAC can ship buffalo meat all over the United States, and customers can order directly from their website: http://www.cheyenneriverbuffalo.com or at http://www.westsidemeats.com
“We have some retail sales,” Murray said, “but the majority of our meat goes to wholesale customers. We supply meat to the Owamni Native American restaurant in Minneapolis and the Tocabe Native American restaurant in Denver, as well as several meat markets.”
Murray hopes that the CRBAC and Westside Meats will be able to provide connections, opportunities and services for many ranchers and farmers in the area.
“The services we provide are much needed in the community,” he said. “Westside Meats has provided processing services for many, many years. It also gives us the opportunity to process our buffalo meat locally so that we can ship it to our customers.’
A Farm to School grant through the USDA has played a part in the CRBAC introducing locally sourced beef and buffalo to five tribal schools in western South Dakota. Murray sees this as one more way to promote locally produced meat.
“Several local producers donate beef for the Timber Lake school, which we processed at Westside,” he said. “It has worked well. We currently provide meat for five schools on the Cheyenne River Reservation and we are reaching out to other schools in our area. We raise the best beef and buffalo in the world here in western South Dakota. We eat our own meat at home; our kids should get to eat it at school.”
Murray sees the momentum for consumers wanting to eat locally sourced food growing since the Covid pandemic.
“If anything good came from the pandemic it’s that people started thinking about where their food comes from,” he said. “They are realizing that meat doesn’t just come off a truck. We need local ranchers and grocery stores to work with each other to try to promote local beef.”
Last fall, Murray traveled to Singapore with the Intertribal Ag Council to promote American Indian foods. While the sixteen and a half hour flight was torture for him, the trip was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“It was such a beautiful country and the people were very nice,” he said. “The trade show was huge, with representatives from every country you can imagine. It absolutely opened some opportunities for us. We had a lot of interest from southeast Asia and Australia as well as from the middle east and other parts of the world. Some people are just looking for something different; some recognize the health benefits of buffalo meat. Everyone seemed to appreciate our story, our culture and our history.”
Selling buffalo meat from Ziebach County South Dakota to the other side of the world would definitely have some challenges. Murray said that marketing would be the first challenge; in Asian countries, the name Cheyenne River Buffalo Company would bring to mind a different species commonly known by the same name.
“People in Asia eat water buffalo,” Murray said. “It is very different from the American Bison. It’s a low grade meat. We would need to clearly call ours American Bison if we pursue that market. Our products would also be unsuitable for the Muslim population unless our product was Halal killed. And the sheer volume —80,000 pounds for a container load—is not realistic for us right now. I don’t feel like we’ve met the needs of our domestic market in the U.S. market yet so we don’t absolutely have to pursue this, but it is definitely encouraging to know that we have additional marketing options out there.”
“Every week, semi load after semi load of locally raised cattle get shipped off to out of state feedyards,” Murray said. “I watch the trucks go by. The best beef, buffalo and sheep in the world are raised in this area. There is every reason in the world for us to work toward making locally raised beef available for the people in our communities.”