The first federally-inspected, nonprofit meat processing facility in the United States is about to open up. It’s just outside of Livingston, and it’s tied to an effort to fight food insecurity across Montana.
On May 13, Bob Lodder, founder and president of the Washington-based meat processing systems company Friesla, gave a tour of the shiny new modular processing plant, which sits under the backdrop of the Absaroka and Crazy Mountains east of Livingston.
The facility is significantly less expensive to build than a brick and mortar one, it’s more energy efficient and it uses less water than a traditional meat processing plant, he said. The ground beef it produces will go to Montanans who face food insecurity.
Producer Partnership, a nonprofit that got its start in the spring of 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, will run the plant. Federal inspectors will be there to ensure animals meet strict health and conditions criteria.
Matt Pierson, founder of the Producer Partnership and owner of Highland Livestock east of Livingston, said getting the facility built is a huge accomplishment. He said it’s going to set his organization up to accomplish its mission — to end hunger in Montana.
Local ranchers donate animals to Producer Partnership, and the organization pays to have those animals processed. The donated animals may be non-calf producing heifers, injured, or retiring cows or bulls.
Once processed, the Montana Food Bank Network and other charitable organizations pick up the meat from the donated animals. That meat — mainly hamburger meat — gets distributed to food donation centers in 36 counties in the state.
The new processing plant will allow Producer Partnership to bring in any species of animal — from a goat to a bison — and be able to process that animal under federal inspection, ensuring the meat can be distributed to all corners of the state, Pierson said.
“It has been this crazy adventure from something that my wife and I just kind of did out of the back of the truck — hauling hamburger around and dropping it off at food banks — to the point now where we have a whole semi sitting here from the Montana Food Bank,” he said.
Bill Mathews, Montana Food Bank Network chief development officer, said that one in 10 Montanans are food insecure, and since October of 2020, the Network has acquired and distributed 96,862 pounds of ground beef from Producer Partnership.
“Montana Food Bank Network has received more donated ground beef from Producer Partnership since 2020 than from the previous 10 years,” he said.
Producer Partnership has raised all its funds from private organizations and individuals, and it has received $51,000 in government funding from Park County, staff wrote. So far, it has raised $2.75 million for its capital campaign.
The new meat processing plant is set to open in the middle of June. Producer Partnership needs $250,000 more to finish out its capital campaign, according to staff. All equipment and the facility is paid for at this point.
John Patterson, a multi-generational rancher who lives south of Columbus, said people in the cattle business work hard to try and make a living, and that living can be tenuous.
“Life in agriculture is never a guarantee, but I think we all realize the lifestyle that we have taken, and when it comes down to core values, we’re here in this world to make a difference,” he said. “That difference, when you’re in agriculture, is to feed the world.”
A little over a year ago, Patterson donated two bulls to the Producer Partnership. The animals were in good condition, but they were crippled. If those bulls had been taken to the local stockyards, they would have been discounted or not accepted, he said.
“Montana doesn’t have the facilities to slaughter those animals locally or within the state. They have to be trucked miles and miles and miles out of state in order to meet a slaughter facility that will handle (them),” Patterson said.
The Producer Partnership allowed Patterson to gain value out of those bulls, and it allowed him to “contribute some goodness” to people. By donating the animals to others, he was also able to get some tax advantages, he said.
“We all want to realize that we made a difference in this world — whether that difference is in your family, your business and your community,” Patterson said. “I’m saying here today, ‘Producer Partnership made a difference in this world.’”