Every Tuesday this month, we'll be highlighting businesses making products right here in South Dakota.
We begin our Made in South Dakota series on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation where Lakota Foods Popcorn is celebrating Lakota culture while providing economic stability in the community.
The story of Lakota Foods Popcorn doesn't start in a factory; it begins in the fields of South Dakota. Every kernel is made from popcorn grown by the Lower Brule Farm Corporation.
"Lakota Foods is actually a value-added production company and we're pretty much the marketing branch for Lower Brule Farm Corporation," said Pat Kerwin, the Lakota Foods Plant manager.
Of the 15 million pounds of popcorn grown at Lower Brule, Lakota Foods uses about half a million pounds in their line of microwave and ready-to-eat popcorn.
"We take it from the field...we clean it, we condition it from the field," said Kerwin.
It's then brought to the factory just a few miles down the road.
"The machine over there, that's what pops the popcorn; It then goes into that tube that you can see circling, that's the sifter and that's what takes out any old maids or any small kernels that may get broken," said Kerwin.
The Lower Brule Tribe invested millions to purchase this equipment about seven years ago.
"We're different than a lot of popcorn companies because our whole purpose is to create jobs," said Kerwin.
For years residents in the Lower Brule community have struggled to find work.
"It was pretty scarce and it still is today," said Lakota Foods Employee Barbara Badhors.
It's why the Lakota Food's Factory does almost everything by hand.
"One guy manually fills it into barrels…we try to do everything by hand if possible—we hand tape our boxes, when we do our microwave popcorn, we hand glue our boxes," said Kerwin.
"People that work here, they take pride in their product and when people say, wow, that's really good popcorn—yes we know, but they take pride in making sure it is," said Lee Brannon, the General Manager for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.
As Lakota Foods begins to expand, they're starting to ship their South Dakota Made popcorn all over the country.
"Right now we have three main distributors that distribute our popcorn for us, we also have Internet sales and have direct companies that purchase from us," said Brannon.
But the company is really looking to expand, hoping to saturate the entire Midwest market.
"It's exciting and I'm looking forward for the company to be moving forward so there will be more jobs for the people in our community," said Badhors.
"To find any way possible to get more popcorn out the door which means more jobs, more stability for the community of Lower Brule," said Brannon.
You can find Lakota Popcorn at select Hy-Vee's, Super-Value's and Affiliated Food Stores around the Midwest. It can also be found at many private retailers and gift shops, including the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
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