The Producer Partnership

When one hears about the Producer Partnership one hears about two concepts not commonly associated with a meat processing facility: a modular structure and a not-for-profit operation that gives away meat.

When the pandemic hit, Matt Pierson, a fifth generation Montana rancher (Highland Livestock), and his wife, Kris, both active in the community, wanted to do something for the less fortunate. What they were looking for was right in front of them–-cattle, and maybe not just theirs.

Their concept was simple: initially take their cull cows, and possibly some of their neighbors’, have them processed into hamburger and distribute the meat, free of charge, to the families in need in Livingston and Park County. The reception was overwhelming.

It was so overwhelming hog farmers began donating hogs to be turned in sausage and delivered along with the beef.

How about taking it state wide?

The Producer Partnership was formed. To get farmers and ranchers to donate their culls–and most have some–a board of directors was organized and a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit status, was achieved. There would be no charge to the people getting the hamburger and pork sausage, and the cull donors would get a tax credit.

The supply side was now developed. For the distribution side, the people from the Producer Partnership met with the people of the Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN).

Brent Weisgram is the Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the MFBN and one of the people responsible for developing the partnership with Matt Pierson. When asked what his thoughts were when first approached by Pierson, open arms is an understatement. “We already knew of the amazing work and outcomes they were achieving locally in Livingston and Park County…By combining their expertise in the agriculture and livestock industry with our established statewide distribution network, we knew it was a perfect fit, and got to work putting it all together. We knew from the beginning they were the perfect partner who shared the same goals, values, desire for the mission, and shared the same high standards and commitment to excellence and professionalism.”

The mission both organizations share is to end hunger is Montana.

The joint effort process between the two organizations began in October, 2020, with an initial shipment of 10,250 pounds of hamburger. And, to date, 3,000 pounds of sausage has been delivered to the MFBN. When the Producer Partnership gets ready to ship frozen hamburger and/or sausage, they contact the MFBN to let them know what will be coming; and the MFBN gets their refrigerated trucks lined up. As the Producer Partnership increases its volume of hamburger and sausage to the MFBN, potentially exceeding 400,000 pounds per year, Weisgram states the “MFBN continues investing by looking for funding to increase our distribution capacity, building our fleet, expanding cold storage, and are committed to accept and distribute these donations as made available.”

It should be noted the Producer Partnership is not the only one contributing meat to the MFBN, but is the largest organized effort to do so.

That was the “easy” part. Pierson found out, the hard way, what it’s like to get cattle and hogs processed in a timely fashion. In the beginning Pierson was taking the animals wherever they could get them processed, including to Yellowstone River Beef, in Williston, North Dakota, for the cattle and Bear Paw Meats, in Havre, for the hogs. If they were going to achieve their goals, the board realized something had to be done. Research was done to find a system that was the quickest, most economical and Federally inspected for their needs. Enter the Fiesla Company, in the state of Washington.

Fiesla manufactures modular processing equipment and mobile processing units. Not only is everything produced in the United States, but given their consultants and staff, the units are ready for U.S.D.A. inspection. The units come in three initial, capacity sizes: 75 head, 150 head and 225 head/week. The two smaller sizes are capable of expanding to the larger sizes just by adding modules. Depending on a person’s needs, they can either purchase one of the modules or the whole setup which will take it from a live animal going in at one end to wrapped retail cuts at the other end. Since Bob Lodder, founder and president of Fiesla, heard about Pierson’s endeavor, he has helped Pierson as much as possible.

Pierson’s initial goal is to process 300 head per month, including 28 culls. The non-culls processed will predominantly be for farmers and ranchers working on the ‘from ranch to table concept’. These outfits will be charged for the service, and responsible for their own distribution.

With the initial donations of $2.5 million, the Producer Partnership is on its way. Pierson predicts by the end of 2021 or beginning of 2022, the Producer Partnership will be fully operational with its own federally inspected processing facility, and capable of handling any livestock that could put meat on the table.

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