Park County, Montana – Thanks to a generous gift of 35 cows from Sweet Grass County rancher Dan Vollum, 15,000 pounds of hamburger will be delivered to the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN) on Friday morning at 10:30 a.m., October 30th. The Producer Partnership, a new statewide organization, facilitated the donation. Its mission: Farmers and ranchers working to end hunger in Montana.
Established by 6th generation Park County rancher Matt Pierson in April, the Producer Partnership has already donated 17,500 pounds of hamburger to several local food banks and community centers in four Montana counties during its proof of concept phase this summer. “With the help of some friends and very generous neighbors, we asked for and received a handful of donated cull cows, processed the hamburger at a state-inspected facility in Big Timber, paid for the processing and delivered the meat to interested non-profits. The local need and response was amazing, so we wondered ‘what if we expanded our vision statewide’”, said Pierson.
With seed money from a startup grant through the Kendeda Fund, a corporate sponsorship from Big Sky Brewing, and a $25,000 Business Innovation Grant award from the State of Montana’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, and forming the entity with help from Missoula law firm Christian, Samson, and Basket, PLLC, Pierson reached out to Brent Weisgram, COO of MFBN. “If the Producer Partnership was going to succeed, it needed an experienced distribution partner familiar with the food business to supply the donated hamburger to all 56 counties in the state. My vision was simply to connect the dots, and form a partnership to benefit Montanans in need”, added Pierson.
MFBN is a logical partner since it has been in the business of providing food to those individuals and families facing food insecurity in Montana for nearly 40 years. MFBN’s trucks and hired carriers make statewide deliveries to a distribution network of over 280 neighborhood food banks, community pantries, social organizations, homeless, abuse & children’s shelters, senior centers, and school organizations committed to ending hunger in Montana. So far this year, MFBN programs have distributed over 18.6 Million pounds of food statewide. Last month alone, the network served over 13,000 households helping over 34,000 individuals consisting of families, seniors, and children.
According to Weisgram, prior to the COVID19 pandemic, MFBN spent less than $2 per pound for hamburger, and all of it was purchased from out of state vendors due to the lack of USDA federally inspected beef processors in the state with the capacity to meet the demand and quantity needed. MFBN orders in full semi-truck load quantities to maximize purchasing funds which equates to about $80,000 per truckload. This translates to an annual expense of about $240,000 to provide hamburger to Montanans with food insecurity, and still it is not enough. During the COVID crisis, the price and demand has changed exponentially, and has dramatically impacted the MFBN budget. “We were experiencing costs exceeding $120,000 per truckload, with wait times of months to get deliveries due to limited supply, high demand, and shutdown-related processing delays. The retail (per pound prices) have spiked to $5 or more across the country. This challenge is just one example of the obstacles impacting food sourcing efforts, in addition to an overall increase in food purchasing costs across the board of about 25-30%. This combined with a significant reduction of perishable retail food donations, which prior to COVID, MFBN depended on for over 50% of the food distributed. “This ground beef donation from The Producer Partnership is going to be a tremendous game changer for us, especially going into the holidays”, Weisgram said. “The money saved by this single donation will allow us to provide an additional full semi-truck load of turkeys to families in need this year. That’s an extra 3,000 Thanksgiving turkeys on tables while still having frozen ground beef in the freezer the following week.”
From a producer perspective, a rancher culls animals from the herd typically each spring and fall or when an injury occurs. The animal(s) are then either loaded up and shipped to auction for sale, retired on site, or now, thanks to the Producer Partnership, donated to feed Montanans in need. Vollum’s donation kicked off the statewide campaign. “I was scaling back my operation, and just about ready to call the cattle buyer. After donating one cow to the Producer Partnership a few months ago, I thought ‘why not do something really meaningful’, so I called up Matt and asked if he wanted them,” Vollum said.
“Needless to say, I was speechless, then my hands started to shake when the magnitude of Dan’s gift settled in”, said Pierson. “His gift allowed us to go statewide with our mission and truly captures the spirit of Montanans helping Montanans in these crazy times. It truly is an incredible gift from one rancher who cares about Montana”, Pierson added. It also brought to light a number of tremendous challenges exposed by COVID-19, notably the ability to process this many animals locally and the weakness of today’s food supply chain. It also shows how difficult it is to provide locally processed meat at an affordable price.
In a state that has more cattle than people, and is one of the top 10 states in the country for livestock production, it is the processing of livestock that has created an operational bottleneck for using donated livestock to feed those experiencing food insecurity. With Vollum’s donation, there were only two viable options. One consideration was to bring the animals into a commercial feedlot until the processing schedule opens up at one of the state or federal plants in Montana, which isn’t well into 2021. This would require feeding 35 animals for six to nine months.
Since the food banks need hamburger now, and to meet the demand, the Producer Partnership contacted a federally inspected facility in North Dakota. “When the management at Yellowstone River Beef learned about our mission and the problem we faced with processing, they enthusiastically said ‘your problem is solved’. They have been outstanding to work with and very accommodating,” said Pierson. “We are thrilled to have them as partners, but disappointed that we must spend our dollars out of state, but right now there are no other options”.
The cost of processing and shipping Vollum’s 35 cows is more than $22,750, paid for entirely by the Producer Partnership. Donations to support the program are being accepted by the Park County Community Foundation and can be made on The Producer Partnership web site at www.producerpartnership.com or Montana Food Bank Network’s website at mfbn.org. Ranchers interested in donating an animal may contact Matt directly at (406) 220-7223.
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Matt Pierson, Highland Livestock
email: [email protected]
Old School Call: 406-220-7223
Brent Weisgram, COO MFBN
email: [email protected]