IAC featured Shawna in the 2013 TA Network Success Story Publication. Here is an update to her story by Washington State FSA.
Beginning Farmer Sows Inspiration
Or How One Young Indian Woman Became a Cowgirl and a Business Woman
With two years left of school, Shawna Kalama has already embarked on a successful career. It all started when Shawna had to develop a business plan for Dr. Leonard Black’s business class at Heritage University.
Shawna is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (north central Oregon) and a Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation descendent (south central Washington). She studies business at Heritage University’s main campus in Toppenish, Washington.
Her first thought for the assignment was to raise corn, but she quickly switched to beef. Her family already had three cows and 40 acres of pasture near White Swan. Dr. Black’s class inspired the budding entrepreneur to envision a business direct marketing beef in Seattle. More than 130 miles from the Yakama Indian Reservation, metropolitan Seattle boasts nationally-recognized chefs and supports a burgeoning local food movement. Shawna’s first challenge was to become a farmer and business woman and then crack the competitive Seattle market.
She had a team ready to help. Her dad, Bill Wiltse, and brother Wyatt Wiltse, were willing to assist Shawna with farm chores. Dr. Black guided her on the business plan. His daughter, Jessica Black is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Studies at Heritage University. In Jessica Black’s classes, Shawna learned about natural resources – the relationship between soil nutrition, crop production and the health of her cattle.
Shawna also knew Mike Shellenberger who works for the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC). As a liaison for the IAC between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and tribal members, Shellenberger assists tribal members with access to USDA programs. He helped Shawna apply for a microloan with the USDA Farm Service Agency. With it, she purchased 20 bred cows and a registered Angus bull and started her business.
Shellenberger connected Shawna with the IAC’s “Made/Produced by American Indians” marketing program and label. This helped distinguish Shawna’s beef in the competitive Seattle market. Sales success led to a second Farm Service Agency microloan to expand the herd. Shawna’s current herd consists of 30 adult cows, 40 calves and three bulls, including one of her favorite – Mr. Bull.
Herd expansion meant Shawna needed more pasture for her animals. Fortunately, Jessica Black’s Environmental Sciences class was experimenting with biochar for water retention. Biochar is charcoal used as a soil amendment. Through a USDA grant to Heritage University, student interns grew crops to research whether biochar could help with tying up nitrates in the soil and reducing crops’ water needs. As a result, the class had a problem of what to do with cornstalks after growing corn and donating it to foodbanks. So part of Shawna’s herd became campus residents where they fed on the cornstalks. “The tame ones are at Heritage,” said Shawna.
The rest of the herd resides near Shawna’s home in White Swan, where she leases two nearby pastures. The herd consists mostly of Angus cattle with some Holsteins. Shawna started with whatever was available at first but is selectively breeding for quality beef.
Jessica Black explained that Heritage University focuses on experiential learning. Students develop holistic projects. They learn more than economics or science. They learn about culture, visions of self and how to operate in a sustainable manner. “Shawna typifies what I see in the students,” Black said. “She doesn’t just raise beef but is also a steward of the land.”
She’s also not the shy student she was the first year, according to Shawna. To be a successful farmer and businesswoman, Shawna had to overcome a number of other obstacles that would daunt many beginners. “I had zero experience with cows when I started,” laughed Shawna. “I had to learn how to have patience raising animals. I had to learn how to deal with loss of animals,” said the young farmer, who names all her animals and speaks of them lovingly.
Her dad and brother taught Shawna how to work with the cows. They still help her with some of the chores that are difficult to do from her wheelchair. The chair doesn’t slow Shawna. She’s already planning to go to shows to market her Native American Beef when she graduates and is working with the IAC to design a logo. Her business acumen and work ethic inspired James McCuen, President of the Northwest IAC to offer the organization’s support as she continues to grow her business. Her team of advocates include her mom, dad, brother and her instructors at Heritage University.
“I want to inspire other native people,” said Shawna. “They can do this, too. They can grow food on native land and in a natural way.”
Chris Bieker, APR
Washington State Outreach Coord.
USDA Farm Service Agency
316 W. Boone, Ste. 568
Spokane, WA 99201