Business & Economy

Red Lake Nation goes on a sales trip to India to discuss trade, walleye and wild rice

A product on a counter
Red Lake Inc., acquired KC’s Best located in Bemidji’s Industrial Park in 2021. Red Lake uses the facility for packaging and distribution of its products.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

India is now the world’s most populous nation with 1.4 billion people. This week Red Lake Incorporated will look to tap into that giant market by joining a US trade mission to India.

From his reservation government office Red Lake Incorporated Chief Development Officer Jaycob Robinson is busy finalizing plans for the trip.

“We have enterprises that have been focused in export marketing of agricultural products, primarily cultivated wild rice for over 25 years. So, we’ve been really active in export market and export market development,” Robinson said. “We’ve been working with the USDA and the Intertribal Ag Council and the American Indian Foods Program for five or six years now.”

Currently Red Lake Incorporated oversees a portfolio of 13 different companies. They’ve participated in past trade missions with the USDA to East Africa, the Netherlands, Japan and Chile.

A man smiles for a photo
Red Lake Nation is one of 47 businesses and organizations going on the trip. As the only representative from a Native or tribal community they will receive in-depth market briefings from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and industry trade experts.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

“For India, we’re primarily focused on looking for surplus markets for some of our seafood products, as well as looking for value add and production opportunities with cultivated wild rice or value-added products based around cultivated wild rice,” he said.

The seafood is walleye from Red Lake and the salmon from their minority share in a wild Alaskan salmon company.

And the wild rice?

“We have one of the largest rice specific farms in the state of Minnesota, where we produce and grow our own rice every year,” Robinson said. “All the harvesting, all the planting, all the farm maintenance is done by Red Lake tribal members.”

Robinson says processing of the wild rice is done by a third party, but packaging is done at the tribal-owned facility in Bemidji. Distribution is also done by a third party.

“We service direct to consumer, domestic markets, retail, as well as bulk exports,” he said.

Red Lake will join 46 other businesses and organizations on the mission. However, it will be the only representative from a Native or tribal community.

“It feels unfortunately familiar. You know, there’s been a lot of instances where we are one of the only Native businesses or Native producers represented at a lot of events,” Robinson said. “It’s a great opportunity, very, very thankful and very grateful for the opportunity. It’s made possible by working with the Intertribal Ag Council who provides the support for us to attend these events.”

Jam and jellies
Along with seafood and wild rice some other products Red Lake Inc. sells include syrups, jams, jellies and pancake mix. Pictured on April 15, 2024.
Mathew Holding Eagle III | MPR News

The benefits trade missions offer are familiar to Brian McClung. As deputy chief of staff and press secretary for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he took part in three trade missions, including one to India.

“I really believe that the Red Lake Nation is going to be a signature highlight of this trade mission, because of their deep history, their deep knowledge and a product like wild rice that is so important to the culture, the Native American people and here in Minnesota, and bringing that to India,” McClung said. “Those trade missions really are an exchange of cultures.”

One major booster for Red Lake’s trip to India is U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.

“As you know, they participated in trade missions before and it has helped to open up markets for their products,” she said. “The global markets are very interested in authentic Native Indigenous foods from the United States. And so, this is a huge opportunity.”

Smith says for a long time tribes weren’t represented on trade missions. That all changed with the 2018 farm bill.

“I pushed hard to get tribal representation on these trade missions,” Smith said from her office in Washington, D.C. “I’m delighted that this is finally happening, and it will be a great benefit to Red Lake.”

A woman greets a crowd at the capitol
Sen. Tina Smith speaks during a rally at Minnesota State Capitol.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News | 2021

In his Red Lake office Jaycob Robinson makes sure he has all he needs for this trip, including the 20-pound sack of wild rice he’ll show potential customers. As a young Red-Laker he never dreamed he’d have a job in international business.

“Absolutely not. It’s been a great learning opportunity. And just learning how to engage in business relationships on a global setting,” he said. “Also just seeing how forthcoming and how willing people are to learn about new things and try different things and work to incorporate our products into their markets or into their products, has been very eye-opening, and very inspiring.”

Robinson says this mission will be an opportunity to educate Indian consumers about new products while building awareness and distribution networks within new markets.

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