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Producer Partnership Seeks 400 Cows To Donate To Montana Food Centers

Rancher Matt Pierson of The Producer Partnership delivers 100 pounds of frozen meat to Chris Grudzinski of Montana Veterans Meat Locker in Billings Aug. 15, 2020.
Sarah Brown, Yellowstone Public Radio
Rancher Matt Pierson of The Producer Partnership delivers 100 pounds of frozen meat to Chris Grudzinski of Montana Veterans Meat Locker in Billings Aug. 15, 2020.

After years of declining, Montana’s food insecurity rate is up more than 50 percent. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 165,000 people in the state could go hungry this year. That’s an estimated 56,000 more people than before the crisis. Now, a rancher from Park County is rallying support to do something about it.

Matt Pierson recently delivered a banana box filled with 100 pounds of frozen hamburger to a walk in freezer in Billings.

The meat will be given out at no cost to veterans and their families.

Pierson, a fifth generation rancher and a long time Livingston soccer coach, runs the newly minted Producer Partnership. Founded in April in response to the financial pain wrought by the pandemic, the organization has donated 14,000 pounds of ground beef to food banks, community centers and veterans programs.

"It was pretty clear once the shelter in place order went into effect in Montana, that the effect that was having on so many people out of work, out of options and stuff. So we had really just decided that we wanted to do something. And as we were talking about it, we sort of stumbled upon the fact that we raised food for a living and decided it was time to do something about it," Pierson said.

So during the first few frenzied months of the country wide lockdown this spring, Pierson took one of his cows to be processed and donated the ground beef to a food pantry in Livingston.

It was an ‘aha moment.’

"What started on a Tuesday afternoon by the following Monday, we had already donated the first 700 pounds," Pierson said. "Tt has just exploded since then."

That first donation turned into another and then another, as Pierson tapped Park County neighbors to do the same. A Livingston feed store posted a flyer soliciting animals from ranchers. Local meat processors in Livingston, Big Timber and elsewhere made space on their crammed schedules for donated cows.

"The processing areas that we have in Montana, you know, they are about 10, the equivalent of 10 cows a day capacity. When most Americans think of a processing plant, you know, they're thinking of 5,000 ahead of day, and we don't have any of those in Montana. Most of the big facilities in the country can do more in one day than we can do in this entire state right now. And that's why it's so hard to get anything in," Pierson said.

Small scale meat processors have been jammed since COVID started, as ranchers dodge dismal market prices and consumers sidestep supermarkets.

The state has ear marked COVID relief funds to boost meat processing capacity at home. Two bills, one to provide grants for small custom meat processors to become federally inspected and sell meat commercially and another that would allow state inspected meat to be sold online across state lines, are pending in Congress.

Pierson says choke points at processors have presented significant hurdles to other hunger aid initiatives.

"If you watch a lot of these programs over time, they've really failed because they asked the processors to, a lot of times, donate half. And especially with the way things are going right now, we can't do that. That just isn't right. You know, we need the processors in Montana," Pierson said.

As COVID gained traction in Montana, businesses closed or scaled back and the unemployment rate spiked from under four percent in February to more than 11 percent in April, according to Montana Food Bank Network’s most recent statistics.

At the same time, shuttered schools and senior centers meant children and older adults were going hungry. Food pantries reported nearly 10,000 more visits this April than last. Meanwhile, food pantries had to deal with rising food prices, delayed or cancelled orders and seriously curtailed donations.

Back to the banana box of meat Pierson is donating. The meat is going to Chris Grudzinski, who runs the non profit Montana Veterans Meat Locker from a walk in freezer in the parking lot of a Billings Popeyes Kitchen.

Grudzinski sees what he calls an "aggressive need" for food assistance first hand. Calls and deliveries are way up and meat giveaways are packed. Earlier this month, he gave away 2,000 pounds of meat donated by the Producer Partnership at a drive through event.

"We didn't know what to expect. In that event an hour before it even started, we had 40, 50 cars lined up. We gave out 262 bags of meat, which came out to over 3,000 pounds in four hours. We ran out of meat and we had to take down names. Then we went and we delivered more meat to them after the event, and that by far was the biggest. I would say almost a hundred calls of people that couldn't come, that were asking for meat," Grudzinski said.

To go some way toward meeting that need, the Producer Partnership is expanding. There was an early $3,500 COVID grant, another from the Kendeda Fund, cash from private donors, a corporate sponsorship from Big Sky Brewing and, just recently, $25,000 from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund.

Pierson wants to get 140,000 pounds of meat to local food centers by the end of the year. That’s about 400 cows. Montana ranchers usually get rid of around 8 percent of their herd annually, more than 200,000 head statewide. Those culled cows typically get sold at auction for low prices and then ship out of state for processing.

Pierson wants ranchers to donate them instead.

"So many ranchers, you know, they say, well, why would I donate an animal?" Pierson said. "I think that we need to start asking the question of why we wouldn't."

Sarah Kanter Brown is the producer of YPR’s Field Days. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, Brown has worked at newspapers and magazines nationwide.