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Livestock Producers Start Ranch-to-Restaurant Supply Chain

By Ellis Juhlin

On opening night of The Union restaurant in downtown Helena, heat pulses off a wood-fired grill where chefs sear steaks, pork chops and thick slices of sourdough bread.
Every ounce of meat served here was raised on one of five ranches within 150 miles of the restaurant.

Around the corner from the grill is a butcher case, selling everything from beef ground in house, to teres major, a specialty shoulder cut.

Farm-to-table restaurants aren’t uncommon, but a locally-sourced restaurant owned and operated by the ranchers who raise the meat they serve - is. It’s part of an ongoing effort among some ranchers to control more of the livestock supply chain that for decades has been dominated by a handful of international meat packing companies -- Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef.

Sous chef Seth Sanderson says The Union, cooperatively owned by the ranchers whose beef is served, is different from any other kitchen he’s been in.

“It's about good people taking care of the land and noticing that the way we've been treating each other and our communities, animals, and like the picture as a whole on a small scale isn't sustainable and isn't really healthy,” Sanderson said.

This new restaurant in Helena trying to get around the big supply chain is part of the Old Salt Co-Op of regional ranches. Helmville rancher Cole Mannix founded the group to give producers control of how their livestock are sold.

“You're just at the mercy of the people who ultimately have access to the customer. The end retailer that is ultimately selling to the customer has all of the power,” Mannix said.

According to datafrom the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, the four largest meatpacking firms handle 85% of all beef and 67% of all pork consumed in the country.

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