Approximately 100 farmers, ranchers and concerned and interested Golden Triangle residents crowded into the Comfort Inn meeting room in Shelby last week to learn more about the proposed Madison Food Park in Great Falls.
Todd Hanson of Norseman Consulting Group in Havre was on hand to give a short presentation and answer numerous questions about the park, which is projected to open before the end of 2020.
Friesen Foods, LLC of Canada has purchased 3,018 acres of land approximately seven miles southeast of Great Falls, where it plans to open processing facilities for beef, pork, chicken and dairy, as well as research and development sites, on-campus classrooms and a distillery.
According to Hanson, the Madison Food Park will “provide an opportunity for ag producers, agri-business enterprises and family farms and ranches to have direct access to a local, centrally located commercial food processing facility.”
Once construction of the park is complete, Phase One of the five year start-up project will commence. Hanson explained the goal for the first phase is to have the plant operating one shift per day, 260 days per year. The processing goal for the first phase is 900 cattle per day, 4,600 hogs per day, and 67,500 chickens per day.
After the first 2.5 years in operation, Madison Food Park will enter Phase Two, which Hanson explained will double production and processing with two shifts per day, 260 days per year. Hanson said by Phase Two the facilities should be processing 1,800 cattle per day, 9,200 hogs per day, and 135,000 chickens per day.
Where will Madison Food Park purchase that many animals? Hanson said the goal is to have exclusively Montana bred, Montana fed, and Montana finished animals, but that will take some time. In the meantime, Madison Food Park will bring animals in from neighboring states for processing while Montana producers and feedlots make changes to their operations.
“You’re not going to see trucks full of Canadian beef coming to the Madison Food Park campus,” Hanson said. “But it’s a five year trajectory. We need five years of supporting feeders, and supporting producers.”
“I find the idea of Montana bred, fed and finished beef being available here in Montana again really exciting,” Sweetgrass area rancher Maggie Nutter said. “Montana has a couple million cattle and yet Montana’s have a hard time finding Montana beef here in the grocery stores or restaurants. With Friesen Foods, LLC building a packing plant to market Montana branded beef there will be a large and reliable supply for stores and restaurants and food service here in state.”
Hanson also said Madison Food Park will take animals from all producers – big and small, which gives hope to many small farmers and ranchers to be able to compete in today’s market.
“It’s going to take people who are already established in that industry expanding their operations,” Hanson continued. “It’s going to take those feeder operations and feedlots in the state of Montana that either went very small scale, or local, or stopped altogether, to re-engage and open back up. Currently, we have 45,000 cattle on feed in the state of Montana. We need 234,000.”
“Livestock producers and grain growers could really benefit from having a growth in the feedlot business here in Montana,” Nutter said. “We haven’t seen much of that since Swift and Midland Empire Packing houses closed down in 1984 and 1985.”
Hanson said there will be challenges, of course. Sourcing Montana bred, fed and finished cattle will take time. Other challenges include verifiability, seasonal production, feed sources, finishing facilities and transportation.
Is it all worth it? Marias River Livestock President Bob Thompson seems hopeful.
“With the ELD mandate looming over the Montana livestock producer,” Thompson said. “The Madison Food Park might be the answer to transportation costs.”
” With it becoming increasingly difficult due to regulations and expenses to ship cattle to feedlots and packing houses out of state, this could really be a blessing for the Montana cattle and hog producer,” Nutter agreed. “We already get a lower price on our cattle for being so far from the feedlots, so this could help remedy that.”
When asked what kind of cattle Madison Food Park would be buying, Hanson didn’t hesitate to answer.
“You can’t skim the cream off the top. We’re going to take it all,” he said. “We’re going to take all the culls, all the prime, all the milk cows from the dairy producers. If we can assure producers that we’re taking every bit of it that you’re raising, consistently, then you can make the best decisions about your business plan, and your business model.”
Not only will Madison Food Park take all kinds of cattle, they’ll also provide unfiltered carcass data to producers in real time, which will enable producers to immediately evaluate their cattle for health and performance.
Where will all of this protein be sold? Hanson said 60 percent of the product that comes from the Madison Food Park will remain in North America, and 40 percent will be for export. He continued, “Madison Food Park will feature Montana Pride, Montana Prime, and Montana Premium for protein and dairy products.”
Hanson also explained that the export market is where the greatest opportunity for profit is.
“A lot of what everybody says in the real world is offal is where the strongest components of the export markets are for us in all three of those protein processing lines – whether we’re talking about cattle or we’re talking about pork, that’s the reality of where the greatest margins are for us,” he said. “We will break the animal down all the way to the final cuts.”
Hanson also addressed the rumors of hutterite ownership and investment in Madison Food Park.
“There is no hutterite community financial involvement in the Madison Food Park project beyond what all of you will have as financial investment in the Madison Food Park project, which is bringing your production to the facility,” he explained. “They’re not investors, they’re not backers. They’re nothing more than what you are – producers.”
Hanson said construction on the Madison Food Park is projected for next spring, barring any delays due to regulations.
“I see so much potential for Montana to benefit from the Madison Food Park – not just agriculture, but all the area’s towns for construction jobs, housing, transportation, niche markets, etc.,” Dupuyer area rancher Susan Anderson said. “People will need to really open their minds to embrace it and be willing to make some changes in how ‘things have always been done,’ but Madison could be just what Montana needs to take us into the future while keeping people on the land they love.”
The meeting in Shelby was organized by the Marias River Livestock Association, which serves Toole, Liberty, Glacier and Pondera Counties.
“The MRLA works hard to keep people informed and up to date on current issues that can and will affect our daily livelihood,” Thompson said. “I was encouraged by the diverse group of people who attended our meeting – from producers, to business people, to town citizens who truly understand the complexity of agricultural issues. These people were here to listen and learn details about the proposal without making rash judgements.”
For more information about Marias River Livestock Association, visit their website at http://www.mariasriverlivestock.com.