TSLN – Montana State On the Cutting Edge: Big Sky Farm to Table Program

Montana State On the Cutting Edge: Big Sky Farm to Table Program

News | November 19, 2019

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Missoula County Public School students have a unique opportunity for hands on learning in the MCPS Ag program at Big Sky High School. No other school in the country has a state inspected butchering shop where students can literally make their own lunch.

Big Sky High School has maintained a farm for nearly a century. There students raise cattle, sheep, hogs, and occasionally chickens and goats. They also raise feed for their livestock.

About five years ago, the idea grew to build a processing plant on the farm where students could learn butchering skills and simultaneously put food on their plates. The meat processing facility became a reality for Missoula County High Schools through a school bond along with several grants and other sources.

“Students have been operating this farm for ninety years,” said Tom Andres, BSHS Ag teacher. “Now they get to do everything from the beginning of life to butchering. It’s a complete cycle.”

Students are also processing beef to put on their own plates in school lunches. Andres says they purchase dry cows from local ranchers, paying the ranchers a premium for their cull cows. The kids get to practice making various cuts of meat, then they bone it all out and grind it into grass fed burger for the school lunch program. This beef is better quality and less expensive for the schools than burger purchased elsewhere.

“It doesn’t shrink up as much when it’s cooked,” Andres said. “It has less fat in it.”

The roughly eight thousand kids in the Missoula County school system can eat three cull cows per day.

That’s a lot of beef.

“It’s wearing me out!” Andres laughed. “We process on Mondays. We’re the only state inspected school meat plant in the country. We’re ‘cutting’ the way.”

Animals raised on the BSHS farm are slaughtered in the environment in which they are conceived, born and raised.

“Our beef has never been in a vehicle until it leaves as steak,” Andres said. “This reduces our carbon footprint and completely eliminates transport stress. Our animals have never had a scary day in their life. I think this makes the meat better too.”

The MCHS students process animals from their farm as well as the purchased cows that go into the school lunch program, and they also do custom orders.

They are using animals from their farm to create value added products such as sausage and other processed meats, and the school is building a food truck to run at local events. Besides hands on ag skills, butchering, food handling and safety, students are getting a firsthand business management education.

“If you just take our piglets,” Andres said, “On the hoof they are worth about fifty cents a pound. But if your take that pig and process it, the meat is worth about five hundred dollars. If you turn the meat into processed meats and sausage and sell it through the food truck that single pig is now worth a thousand dollars. We are actually the largest pork producer in the county.”

Kristy Rothe, another ag teacher at BSHS, says that the program has had incredible support within the community.

“For our neck of the woods we’re a pretty urban community,” she said. “I think that one reason we’ve had so little negative feedback is that Missoula has really embraced the farm to table, local food, and small farmer movement.

“A lot of people have extreme views from a lack of exposure and information about raising livestock. We know that of the students who come through the program few will have a career directly involved in ag. Our goal is to build informed consumers: people who know where their food comes from—that it’s not from the grocery store–and that it involves hard work.”

The farm raises its own hay but also sources feed from an unusual place. BSHS picks up waste produce from local food banks and grocery stores as well as accepting donations from local farms and gardens. Carrots. Potatoes. Pumpkins. Apples. Celery. Whatever shows up is what the animals get to eat.

“This summer they sent us several pallets of celery,” Rothe said. “We had enough to feed for two weeks. The cows loved it. They would just grab it and sling it around!”

Rothe and Andres are both happy that the farm can utilize food that would otherwise be thrown away to produce more food to feed the community. They also feed brewers grain from local breweries, a waste product that makes terrific feed for their stock.

Students are responsible for every part of the meat processing, and Rothe says they are enthusiastic.

“Even students who aren’t in ag classes beg to be a part of the meat lab,” she said. “Three of the high schools in the county bus out to the farm. Even some very urban students want to work in the meat lab. Our kids today need basic job skills. They need to learn to be tenacious, learn how to show up to work, learn how to fill out an application. We have kids coming from communities where their family support is not what it should be. Maybe they don’t have anyone at home who can give them a ride to a job after school. Having a school based business where they can work is a good solution.”

Andres also sees students excited about the ag program at the BSHS farm and meat plant. The farm may be the only opportunity most of these kids have to experience agricultural production first hand. Andres said that of the three thousand high school students in the county, three hundred are taking ag classes. Of those three hundred, zero live on production farms.

“What makes it so special is that this is the only place these kids are going to be able to do these things,” he said. “When I was part of the program back in the ‘80’s about a fourth of the kids in the ag classes came from farms. It wasn’t so special because you could do it at home. You could go home and change irrigation pipe or watch a cow calve.”

“Enrollment in our ag program has tripled in the last ten years,” he said, “And it’s continuing to grow. Thirty years ago we had one ag teacher. Ten years ago we had two. Now we have three.”

Students own the majority of the livestock on the BSHS farm and stay after school to do chores. They also show up on weekends and throughout the summer to care for their stock. An ambitious student can earn enough money working on the farm to pay for a year of college.

The BSHS meat processing plant is a unique learning experience for Missoula County students. Students are trained in the ethical treatment of animals and trained and certified in food and equipment safety. These skills and certifications qualify them for immediate hire in restaurants and the food service industry. Students also get unmatched hands on science education as they process animals, getting to study fresh organs instead of those preserved in formaldehyde. This is particularly valuable to students preparing for a career in Veterinary Science or the medical field. Students learn skills and technology specific to the food and meat processing industries and learn business skills such as how to communicate with customers and how to run a small business.

Perhaps most importantly they learn the demands and rewards of an agricultural lifestyle and put locally produced lunch on the table for themselves and the entire school district.