12 Dec 2016

Heritage Student’s Beefy New Career

Heritage Student’s Beefy New Career

Author: Cheryl  /  Categories: Campus, Wings  / 

With a year left of school, Shawna Kalama has already embarked on a successful career. It all started when she had to develop a business plan for a business class at Heritage University.

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. Her class inspired the budding entrepreneur to envision a business direct-marketing beef in Seattle. More than 130 miles from her home on 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 Kalama with farm chores. Her professor, Len Black (now retired), guided her on the business plan. And a course in natural resources taught her about the relationship between soil nutrition, crop production and the health of her cattle.

Kalama 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 Kalama apply for a microloan with the USDA Farm Service Agency. With it, she purchased 20 breed cows and a registered Angus bull and started her business.

Shellenberger connected Kalama with the IAC’s “Made/Produced by American Indians” marketing program and label. This helped distinguish her beef in the competitive Seattle market. Sales success led to a second Farm Service Agency microloan to expand the herd. In one year’s time, her herd grew to 30 adult cows, 40 calves and three bulls, including her favorite—Mr. Bull.

Herd expansion meant Kalama needed more pasture for her animals. Another Heritage University project had just the answer she needed. Students in the Environmental Sciences and Studies program were 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 food banks. So part of Kalama’s herd became campus residents in the fall, where they fed  
on the cornstalks.

“The tame ones are at Heritage,” she said.  The rest of the herd resides near Kalama’s home in White Swan, where she leases two nearby pastures. The herd consists mostly of Angus cattle, with some Holsteins. She started with whatever was available at first but is selectively breeding for quality beef.

Dr. Jessica Black, professor of the Environmental Sciences and Studies program, 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 Kalama. To be a successful farmer and businesswoman, she had to overcome a number of other obstacles that would daunt many beginners.

“I had zero experience with cows when I started, I had to learn how to have patience raising animals. I had to learn how to deal with the loss of animals,” said the young farmer, who names all her animals and speaks of them lovingly.

Her dad and brother taught Kalama how to work with the cows. They still help her with some of the chores that are difficult for her to do from her wheelchair, but the chair doesn’t slow her down. 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 includes her mom, dad, brother and instructors at Heritage University.

“I want to inspire other native people,” said Kalama. “They can do this, too. They can grow food on native land and in a natural way.”


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