Laura Garber of Hamilton's Homestead Organics Farm and Beau McLean of Living River Farms in Stevensville will be providing the frozen chicken for the Mountain Meat Shares.

An Arlee woman is betting that customers in the Missoula area would like to be able to eat locally sourced and humanely-raised meats just as much as they like their local veggies. She also hopes her customers will financially support the efforts of ranchers in the community rather than out-of-state corporations.

Jennifer Knoetgen recently won the "new business pitch" contest at the Last Best Conference for her new business, called Mountain Meat Shares. It’s based on the popular program of vegetable Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares that’s used by many local farmers.

Essentially, customers pay a flat fee per month and then get a delivery of a variety box of frozen food on the first Tuesday every month. At first, Knoetgen will be selling pasture-raised chicken from Living River Farms in Stevensville, grass-fed beef from the Oxbow Cattle Co. in Missoula and pasture-raised pork from Lyon Ranch in Drummond.

“I visited all the farms and saw how they raise their animals,” Knoetgen said.

Knoetgen raises all the meat she eats at her own ranch in Arlee, and she is confounded when people ask her how she can eat her animals after feeding and interacting with them for so long. To her, it’s much worse to eat an animal whose origins are unknown and probably raised in neglected, caged conditions on an industrial feedlot or in a warehouse.

“The horrors of industrial confinement meat operations are no secret,” she tells people on her website. “The impact to the animals, the workers, the environment and our health is known. Choosing, and it is a choice, to eat meat comes with a responsibility to know how the animals are raised.”

Until recently, it wasn’t possible for Missoulians to purchase locally butchered chickens because there wasn’t a chicken processing plant in the area. Now chickens raised on Living River Farms can be processed at a new facility at Homestead Organics near Hamilton through a collaboration with the Montana Poultry Growers Cooperative.

Knoetgen will offer two options at first. Customers can either purchase a regular box, which will be between 5-7 pounds, for a six-month subscription of $390, which works out to $65 per month. A larger box will be around 10-12 pounds per month and will cost $720 for six months, or $120 per month. The chickens will be whole, and the pork will consist of breakfast sausage, pork chops, bacon or ham, among other things. The beef will include sirloin steaks, chuck roasts, burger or stew meat, and a host of other options.

“I’m really excited to have beef from Oxbow Cattle Co. because of the way they treat their soils,” she said. “They have a tremendous amount of integrity in the way they treat the land.”

She actually conducted a market survey to find out what people wanted earlier this spring, so she believes there’ll be enough interest to support the endeavor. The first pick-ups begin on Nov. 7 at an office building in downtown Missoula.

Annie Heuscher, the program director at the nonprofit Community Food and Agriculture Coalition in Missoula, said she think's it's the first business model of its type in Montana that she's aware of.

"I think it's an awesome idea," she said. "It kind of solves a bunch of problems that other people trying to sell meat have experienced. She's storing all the meat rather than the customer storing it all, and it's hard to get locally sourced meat in western Montana, unfortunately. It's a really cool model."

Heuscher said right now, most customers are forced to either buy whole or half animals, which take up a whole freezer, and they may not know what to do with all the parts.

"With meat shares, you get a box with a smaller selection of things," she said. "Rather than getting the whole animal and not knowing what to do with the ham hocks, you will get a box with ham hocks and a recipe. It will be easier to use with the diversity of things they get."

The program will also allow local ranchers to get their products to market in a different way.

"We know for a lot of people it's hard to direct-market your meat," Heuscher said. "It's almost a whole other business. So for farmers and ranchers to have the opportunity to not have to do that, I think it's very interesting for the ones I've talked to so far about it."

For more information visit mountainmeatshares.com.

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