Missoula businessman Mark Estep has an odd approach to road-tripping. On a recent Friday morning, he stands in the back of a retrofitted cattle trailer at the Missoula County Fairgrounds talking about the prospect of rolling from ranch to ranch in rural Montana, processing scores of livestock along the way. In his mind, it seems an ideal way to reclaim a portion of Montana’s sustainable agriculture system that’s been outsourced to federally inspected processing plants in other states for decades.
“A million and a half beef cattle in Montana, and 20,000 of them were processed in 2012 here in-state,” Estep says.
The trailer itself is actually a mobile processing unit, on loan to Estep from the Nebraska-based nonprofit Renewable Harvest for demonstration purposes. Estep hopes the example will boost support for his cause: Purchasing a similar unit that can butcher cattle, pigs, sheep and goats on-site under the gaze of a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector. Estep says he’s already got several private investors lined up for the venture and predicts he could be processing animals for Montana ranchers as early as summer 2015.
Numerous groups in Montana over the years have explored establishing a USDA-certified meat processing facility. Currently, producers must ship livestock out of state for slaughter and processing at USDA inspected plants—a situation many argue wastes fuel, puts undue stress on animals and ultimately undercuts the growing demand for locally, responsibly raised meat. A permanent facility would likely cost millions, however, compared to the $300,000 Estep estimates his Montana Mobile Processing Company would need to start up.
The next step is spreading the word. Estep just got back from showing off the unit at the Montana Meat Processors Association convention in Kalispell. He estimates about 25 curious restaurateurs and local foodies have stopped by the fairgrounds for a peek. Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss visited earlier in this morning; Estep expects the other two commissioners any moment. So far, the feedback has been positive. The trailer may not look like much from the outside, but most people see how it could be the next step in a more localized food system.
“People are bombarded with recalls and news about, ‘This is sickening people in Tennessee, and this has killed two kids in Blah, Blah, Blah,’” Estep says. “I think more people are becoming aware of where their food comes from.”