by Nathan Boddy
It’s been a busy few years for Hamilton Packing Company owner, Jason Schlange. Having taken over the meat processing business prior to the explosion of COVID-19, there were bound to be challenges. His business is thriving, however, and part of that can be credited to his company’s award of two different grants by the State of Montana.
Montana Department of Agriculture’s Acting Director, Christy Clark, and members of the Agricultural Development and Marketing Bureau visited the Bitterroot Valley on Tuesday, October 12th, in order to view firsthand some of the impact that grant dollars have had on local agriculturally focused businesses. First on their list in the valley was the Hamilton Packing Company, where Schlange provided a thorough look at his business, as well as his hopes for future growth.
“We came here to grow,” said Schlange, as he spoke with Department members. “I could do double the (work) out of this facility right now if I had the employees to do it.” Schlange was referencing the ongoing shortage of employees endemic throughout much of the nation at the present time. Specifically, his needs are for quality, well-trained meat cutters. “We’re here for everyone; retail, wholesale, but also the hunters. I’m going to take care of the hunters. It’s how people here in the valley feed their families.”
Currently, Hamilton Packing Company takes in approximately 15-20 beef for processing every week. As rifle season gets underway, the number of animals can jump over 100. “Everybody here works hard,” he says, adding that more of the right employees would certainly make a difference.
Despite employee shortages, however, the grants that Schlange received have allowed him to improve his business efficiency and set his sights on growing the business. The Growth Through Agriculture (GTA) grant is an ongoing program which the state website says is for, “Montanans interested in innovating or expanding agricultural businesses.” The Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grant (MMPIG) program, however, was a one-time program to “aid small and medium-sized meat processors in responding to the COVID-19 crisis through the adaptation and advancement of meat processing infrastructure and capacity in Montana.” That program ultimately distributed $12 million to meat processors throughout the state.
In Schlange’s case, the funds allowed him to purchase multiple pieces of equipment that will more effectively allow this local business to thrive, such as an additional grinder, a band saw and even a refrigerated delivery van. A large percentage of the meat processed at Hamilton Packing Company is locally raised, and being able to deliver to restaurants and grocery stores will keep more of that product on local plates.
“We keep as much meat local as possible,” says Schlange, explaining further that sometimes meat will come from Washington or South Dakota. Still, he says, “I’m going to try and keep as much of it as I can in the Bitterroot, or from the surrounding area, to support the community. That’s what we’re here for, to service people’s needs. That’s what 90% of it is.”
In addition to touring the Hamilton Packing Company, Acting Director Clark toured the Bitterroot Brewery and Willow Mountain Winery in Corvallis for a look at how those businesses incorporate Montana products into their own business model and products. Says Clark, “The Governor in particular has a really big focus on value added agriculture and he really wants to see us grow that part of our state. We have a lot of raw products in this state that get shipped out and so a focus is to try and capture that gap. Hopefully (the grants will) put a little more money in producers’ pockets, but also build that in-between business. We’ve given some grants, we’ve visited with a lot of people. We’re just seeing how it’s going and hearing form people, what they need and if we’ll be able to fill those gaps too.”