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Photo courtesy Living River Farms LLC

Montana poultry processing plant set for grand opening

HAMILTON, Mont. — A new poultry processing plant is set to open soon in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana.

Beau McLean was born and raised in Montana and wanted to find a way to move back home after attending college in Oregon. Growing up on a cattle ranch in Willow Creek, McClean is familiar with the ranch lifestyle and partnered with his friend Christopher Green to pursue a career in the agricultural sector. Market research in 2013 showed there was a large demand for local pasture-raised chickens, but there was no local place to process the birds.

“We traveled through western Montana, and all the grocery stores and restaurants we talked to wanted local, pasture-raised chicken,” says Green, who adds the local option was a big hole in the market.

McClean and Green started Living River Farm, which pasture-raises chickens that are brooded indoors until they are old enough to go outside. Once out to pasture, the birds live inside large movable structures for their safety from predators and the environment. The structures are moved daily so the chickens have a clean environment, new grass to scratch and bugs to eat. The farm houses an average of 2,000 birds at a time.

Living River Farms and Homestead Organics, a farm south of Hamilton, Mont., that has been selling organically raised poultry directly to consumers for six years, are working together to establish a small-scale state licensed poultry processing hub in the Bitterroot Valley. Currently, poultry meat in Montana must be processed at a licensed facility in order to be sold directly to customers or through farmer’s markets and grocery stores. There is no facility in western Montana for poultry to be custom processed or processed legally for resale.

The facility is for use by both Homestead Organics Farm and Living River Farm’s poultry processing needs, and also for other Montanans who wish to bring their poultry to the facility. A $15 membership fee for the Montana Poultry Growers co-op grants members the ability to have their poultry processed at the facility. Once processed, the meat can be sold in retail outlets across the state. The facility is able to process 600 chickens per day.

A Montana Department of Livestock employee will be on site during processing hours inspecting the process and ensuring a sanitation.

“It’s unique in that it gives grocery stores and county sanitarians a lot of reassurance that every chicken was inspected by an official,” McClean says. “He will literally look at every single chicken that comes through here.”

Initially, more than 80 people from the local community donated more than $22,000 in crowd-based funding, an online campaign that incentivizes people to donate to projects through the use of a tiered rewards system.

With the support of a $23,000 grant given by the Montana Department of Agriculture through the Growth Through Agriculture program the team was able to complete remaining infrastructure construction. Homestead Organics also received $24,000 through GTA and another grant in the amount of $30,000 from the Lake County Community Development Program.

“The challenge for all young farmers has been that it is really expensive to get started,” McClean says. “We have had support from our families and we’ve done it all so far without any debt, which was our goal. Find a niche and don’t be afraid to start small.” The duo cut costs by buying equipment second-hand and putting in enormous amounts of physical labor. Green advices agricultural entrepreneurs to connect with local economic development centers and other resources made available to Montana producers.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 233,000 poultry farms were operating in the U.S. in 2012. In 2014, the U.S. poultry industry produced 8.5 billion broilers, nearly 100 billion eggs and 238 million turkeys with a combined value production of $48.3 billion in 2014. This was up 9 percent from $44.4 billion just the year before.

“In Montana, we saw people cared more about local food and that movement, the mentality of wanting to know where food comes from and supporting local business was huge,” says McClean, who with Green plans to sell their poultry products at grocery stores in the Bitterroot Valley area.