Sharing the Holy with the Cow: Rancher-based organization helps feed the hungry
It was a church sermon on helping the needy that sparked the idea for Holy Cow Ranches. Seven years ago Jate Heap’s pastor in Bozeman, Mont., was conveying the need for the congregation, as Christians, to step up to help the needy and not just rely on the government to do it.
The message hit home with Heaps, a cowboy and cattleman who today lives and ranches in Absarokee, Mont. “During that sermon I tried to figure out a way I could help, and cattle came to mind,” says Heaps.
Like the principle of “teaching a man to fish,” Holy Cow Ranches is based on the concept of sustainability and relying on a renewable food source. To Heaps, the fact that cattle reproduce and have calves – and thus create a perpetual food production system – kept coming to mind as he scribbled notes. Heaps and his wife, Brook, launched the 501c3 organization along with the help of Heaps’ parents, Joe and Carrie Heaps. Joe currently serves on the board of directors and they work to grow the program around the Challis, Idaho, area where they live and ranch.
The purpose of their work is simply to use cattle to feed the hungry, and they do it in a variety of ways. For the most part the program operates in Montana and Idaho. The basics are cattle which are donated and then either harvested for beef or sold, with the money used to purchase ground beef. Holy Cow then partners with churches to set up a freezer in their facility, and relies on word-of-mouth and referrals to distribute the beef to needy families. “Congregations usually have a pretty good idea of who among their own needs help,” Heaps says. Jate and Brook are also starting to build a herd of “Holy Cow cows,” that will serve as a base for the program, with the calves being used feed the program – both literally or through cash sales.
A second base of operations is emerging in the unlikely location of Nashville, where Jeff Lucas – a PRCA rodeo announcer, marketing expert, and also the new social media coordinator for Holy Cow Ranches, lives.
To Lucas, the cause of hunger hits close to home. “I grew up in a family where my parents worked six jobs to try and make ends meet, but we still didn’t have enough. Trips to the food pantry were what we relied on for groceries,” he says. Lucas notes that as salt-of-the-earth, hardworking ranchers, “at times we forget that just because someone works hard, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are able to afford food, and just because someone has to rely on a hand-out doesn’t mean they don’t work.”
As Holy Cow Ranches has grown, corporate sponsors have come on board in the fight against hunger. Currently, Merck Animal Health donates all the vaccine for the Holy Cow base herd. Allflex donates the tags. Cinch, maker of western jeans and shirts, has donated product to help raise funds, as has American Hat Company, and Big Bend Trailers is raffling off a trailer from their booth at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo this year.
Different donors often have different request of where and how they want their contributions to go, says Lucas. For that reason they try and keep options open and Holy Cow’s “flowchart” of operations is intentionally left loosely defined. “We are very deliberate about not setting limitations on what kind of donations we take, or how we help those in need,” says Lucas. “Our primary method is to simply take a donation dollar and reproduce it through cattle.”
As a rancher, Heaps says his expertise is raising cattle, and networking with others who do the same. “We run our own cows, so we have a pretty good idea of what we can do as ranchers,” he says. He hopes other ranchers see the difference a donation will make, and are called to join in as they are able. “We have a lot of people asking how they can help, and they appreciate the fact that since we are operating in uncharted territory we will continue to learn as we grow.”
Heaps says as they look to the future, one of their areas of growth will focus on children, especially the food insecure population who depend on school programs. “When the weekend rolls around, there’re a lot of kids who will go hungry before Monday comes,” says Heaps. “We’d love to be able to provide some sort of preserved beef like jerky for them to take home in their backpacks.”
Today Holy Cow Ranches continues to be part food collection and distribution, part networking to build the organization, but more than anything – it’s the promotion of the timeless principle of taking care of one another.
“Even if you don’t get involved with us in particular, if we can inspire people to get involved in some other organization to serve their neighbors or encourage others to take care of the less fortunate in some way, then we’ve fulfilled our mission,” says Lucas.
For people interested in being a part of Holy Cow Ranches – either through cattle or cash donations, sponsoring beef processing, setting up a distribution freezer, or any other means of involvement, call Heaps at 406.223.0274. Donations can be made and more information found at the website HolyCowRanches.org.
The basis of the organization continues to be faith, and Lucas says they’ve done a good job as an organization to surround themselves with likeminded people who truly have a heart to help others.
“The reality is we may not ever be able to end hunger, but we know we can make a difference,” says Lucas. “And that difference is what we strive to do. It may be filling someone’s belly, or leading someone back to their faith.”
Maybe hamburger is just the way to do that.
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