February 3, 2022
Depending on cattle prices, producers have only a few choices when culling an animal: sell it--in most cases for a low price—or butcher or bury it. Producers in Montana now have another option: a unique program started in 2020, processing animals donated for meat--for people who need food.
Producer Partnership is the brainchild of fifth-generation rancher Matt Pierson, who operates a cow-calf operation (Highland Livestock) east of Livingston.
How it all began
“Growing up, I played soccer and started coaching soccer when I was still in high school because our small town didn’t have very many people to help with the younger kids,” Pierson said
“I know most of the families in our town, and when the pandemic hit in 2020, I could see its effect. Everyone was still sheltering in place and there were food shortages in grocery stores.” One day during calving season, he and his hired men were working cows, discussing how to help their community, and one of them said, “Look at all this hamburger walking around!”
Pierson realized ranchers had a way to help. If they could donate hamburger, they could make a difference. “We started making phone calls to neighbors to see if they had any cull cows, and I called local meat processors.” By next day they had processed 350 pounds of burger, and Pierson delivered it to the Livingston Food Resource Center.
“One of the neighbors I talked to was on the Park County Community Foundation Board, our local non-profit group that helps other non-profit organizations; their mission is to connect people. The board heard what we were doing and put $3500 into a fund for us to pay for processing!” Pierson said.
“Within 6 days from the time I started calling neighbors we delivered 700 pounds of hamburger to local food banks. The idea took off from there.”
Within a month, 10 neighbors and friends donated 10,000 pounds of ground beef to local food banks, food pantries, and community centers. The Pierson ranch was a drop-off place for donated animals. “It’s a big county, but everyone knows each other. This idea exploded and took off. The Park County Community Foundation gave us a lot of support; they paid our bills, and collected money and each food bank sent a tax letter to the producers so they could have a tax deduction,” he said.
Ranchers could bring donated animals to the Public Auction Yards in Billings, Montana or Highland Livestock in Livingston, or Ovando, Montana. “This all started in April, and by November we had our own non-profit status with the IRS.”
The next step was to branch out over the state but there’s a shortage of custom processors. “I took animals anywhere I could—some as far away as Williston, North Dakota. By the end of 2020 we realized that getting animals processed was tough issue; we’d missed out on a lot of meat because we couldn’t get them to a butcher,” he said. Even so, by the end of 2020, the Producer Partnership donated 53,345 pounds of hamburger to many people struggling with food insecurity across Montana.
By January 2021 they had a full Board and voted to build their own processing facility. “We started fundraising and building it on our ranch, and by March of 2022 we hope to open our own federally-inspected processing facility,” Pierson said.
The buildings are already in place. “We chose a modular system and are now putting all the pieces together and cooling units. We also hired our first two employees.”
The facility will also process donated pigs, sheep, goats, domestic bison, etc. “We won’t do wild game, but since the start of the program we’ve done 14 pigs. We could have done more pigs, but those 14 were all I could find processing for,” Pierson said.
He feels fortunate he has so many connections with the community, after decades of soccer coaching and other contacts. “It’s all intertwined. Several Foundations in Park County have helped us, and I had a direct ‘in’ with them because I coached all their kids. It’s been great to be able to pick up the phone and tell someone what I’m doing and ask how we can get it done.”
They are doing something that many people said was impossible—getting a federally-inspected facility built in just over a year. “This will be the first federally-inspected nonprofit processing facility. We’ll do some custom processing, to make a little money to offset costs—working with local producers who sell meat directly to consumers at farmers markets or online. They need a place to process animals,” he said.
As of mid-January 2022, since the beginning of the Producer Partnership, 95,967 pounds of meat have been donated to needy people. “We hope to more than double that next year, using our own facility. We want producers to get a tax write-off when they donate to us. If you donate a cow, you get a receipt for 350 to 400 pounds of hamburger, to maximize the tax benefit,” he said.
This might be a model for people in other communities and states. “We want to create a blueprint, for this idea to branch out,” Pierson said.
“One of my goals is to supply all the meat the MFBN (Montana Food Bank Network) needs in a year--about 170,000 to 175,000 pounds. I want to provide that, at no charge, and offer this free product to every school in Montana. We don’t need to wait for the government to step in to fix these issues.”
The Montana Food Bank Network distributes donated Partnership meat across the state, working with more than 360 network partners (including food banks, schools, shelters and senior centers) to provide nutritious food to needy people. In 2020 MFBN distributed over 23 million pounds of food to its network, serving more than 265,000 households in all 56 counties.
“When we open our doors we’ll be able to process 15 cows per day (or equivalent in sheep, goats, pigs, etc.) and if we want to add onto our facility later we could do 30 per day, or 45. If we have a chance to duplicate that in 10 states, it would be 4500 per day, and this could make a huge difference.”
This will also be a training ground for future butchers. “I want to open a school here, with housing onsite for students. We’d take 4 to 6 at a time and pay them to come to school. In 6 months they would leave with a degree and a full understanding of how to process meat. One challenge in that business is difficulty finding trained employees and keeping them. Why not pay people to go to school and learn how to do this,” Pierson said.
“Montana has about 3 million cows. Roughly 8% get culled each year, so that’s about 240,000 cows leaving our state. If I can get my hands on 1000 of those cows, I could supply everything the Montana Food Bank Network provides for everybody in need and enough for every school in our state for one year,” he said.
In Livingston, the food bank was giving out one pound of hamburger per family of 4, per week. “Now we help them give 3 pounds for each family of 4 per week; we have maintained that since the pandemic started,” he said.
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