Value added: Meat program helps Missoula students learn to raise, butcher, sell

Pigs and piglets huddle in a pen on a cold morning at School House Meats in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

On a brisk fall morning with the pigs huddled in their pen, Tom Andres lamented the lack of a meat processing plant in Montana, but praised a small Missoula program that’s adding value to its products – and a lesson to its students.

Andres, the instructor at the Agriculture Education Center run by Missoula County Public Schools, said the program at School House Meats, now in its third year, helps students raise their animal to the butchering process, and teaches them the business that results from the sale of the product.

“Some of our students will find their way into meat processing, but this isn’t specifically for turning out butchers,” Andres said. “It’s about teaching students where their food comes from and about creating food safely. Getting those skills are valuable. We teach them how to work and run a business.”

Andres was joined Tuesday by Christy Clark, acting director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, and members of the agency’s Developing and Marketing Bureau, to explore the process of adding value to a product.

The “farm” at School House Meats, as Andres calls it, runs a herd of Galloway cattle, pigs and sheep. While it operates under the umbrella of the school district, the program is self sustaining and grossed around $100,000 last year.

Aside from fresh cut meat, the program produces around 17 different products, including sausage, bacon, ham and pulled pork. The Department of Agriculture is pushing to add more value to the state’s commodities, including those grown at the farm.

“We’re really trying to focus on not just shipping raw commodities out of the state, which is what we do a lot of, but trying to capture that middle step,” said Clark. “That middle step equates into more money but also adds another business into that gap.”

Pigs and a cow were butchered on Monday and hang Tuesday to cool in a locker at School House Meats, where Tom Andres teaches Missoula students how to raise animals and see them through processing steps. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

While the program produces around 200 tons of hay on its property, it also raises its animals and tends to them throughout the cycle of life. The sows were recently inseminated and a new crop of piglets sit huddled in the morning chill.

Across the property waits the processing floor, where the animals will be killed and butchered when the time comes. The program’s students have a hand in the entire process.

“If we took those pigs to the stock yard, they’d be worth about $120 a piece once ready to butcher,” said Andres. “If we put them on Craig’s List or in the school email and sold them as naturally raised pork and hauled them to Superior Meats or Lolo Locker for butcher, we could sell them for $300 a piece.”

But with the aid of federal grants stemming from Covid relief funding, and with the support of the Montana Department of Agriculture, the program landed several grants to purchase an array of processing equipment, including a scalder, smoker and sausage maker.

Processing the meat on site brings more profit to the product.

“When we started processing them (pigs) ourselves, we could get that price up to $600 a piece,” said Andres. “If we provide more specialty meats like pepper sticks or salami out of that same pig, we can charge about $700 a piece. If we sell them as pulled pork out of our food truck, it’s about $1,200 what that pig is worth.”

While the cattle aren’t as abundant in number simply due to the space they require, processing them on site also brings in money. The program can buy cows at the stock yard for $0.07 a pound and process them on site into hamburger.

“We could make pretty good money that way,” said Andres. “Our school will buy every pound of hamburger we make and run it through the lunch program. They have 8,000 students to feed a day. They’ll go through a ton of hamburger at one time.”

Christy Clark, acting director of the Montana Department of Agriculture, left, and Tom Andres, the instructor at the Agriculture Education Center run by Missoula County Public Schools, tool the “farm” at School House Meats. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Adding value to the state’s commodities is good for business, but it requires the workforce to support it. It also requires the necessary equipment.

Clark said the state offered up more than $12 million in Covid funding through the Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grant, including $150,000 grants focused on meat processing. While the state lacks a large processing plant, it has several small processors working to add value to their products.

“When the pandemic came out, we were getting record low calf prices but record high retail process for meat,” said Clark. “So many people wanted local meat, and it became apparent that the food supply chain was horribly interrupted with meat more than anything. The other component to adding value now is whether you have the workforce to support it. This is a nice model, where they’re actually utilizing students to do that.”