LINCOLN — Every week, Hi-Country Snack Foods brings in 13,000 pounds of Montana beef to its manufacturing plant just outside Lincoln. That meat is processed into the company’s popular beef jerky, sold across the state and beyond.
On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte toured the facility, as the culmination of his tour of the state’s 56 counties.
“This is impressive,” he said. “This is another example of great value-added Montana ag — taking Montana beef and turning it into delicious jerky and other products.”
Leaders showed the governor the full production lines, from where the beef is combined with spice blends, to the ovens where the jerky is cooked, to the workers putting together the packages for sale.
Hi-Country employs about 35 people at the Lincoln facility, and around 43 total. In addition to jerky, they produce sausage sticks, seasoning mixes and more. They also operate a trading post, where they sell not only their own products, but other made-in-Montana items.
President Travis Byerly says Montana is a key part of Hi-Country’s brand.
“People like Montana,” he said. “It’s romantic — clean air, beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes, outnumbered by cattle.”
Founder Jim Johnson launched Hi-Country in 1976. Byerly purchased the business from him in 2019. Within a year, he was faced with the unexpected challenge of COVID-19.
Byerly says businesses like his were particularly affected by the pandemic because meat processing in the U.S. is highly centralized.
“When certain bigger plants had constraints, our output and supply went down dramatically and everybody was fighting over that limited amount of product,” he said. “So prices went up and supply became hard.”
He says Hi-Country was lucky, because just before the pandemic started, they shifted from using imported beef to all U.S. — with plans to eventually switch to just Montana beef.
“If we relied on just imported beef, a lot of companies that were quite a bit larger than us weren’t able to get supply and either had to close their doors for a short period of time or lay off a considerable amount of workers because they didn’t have any raw material to manufacture,” he said.
Byerly told Gianforte there’s now a lot of opportunity for growth. One limiting factor has been the packaging. Currently, workers are often packing the boxes by hand. The company is planning to invest in a new piece of automated equipment that they hope will allow them to keep their current workforce but greatly speed up their production.
“Auto weigh, fill, bag, seal — everything all in one process, and it’ll increase our output substantially,” said Byerly. “We’ll be able to do about ten times out of this facility what we’re currently producing from a packaging standpoint.”
Another major obstacle has been housing. Byerly says in Lincoln, like other Montana communities, the demand for housing has made it difficult for the average worker to afford a home. The company is working on ways to help develop additional housing in the area.
“We’re trying to lower that bar — put in some housing where it’s not only affordable, but our employees have a comfortable, safe place to call home and work from,” Byerly said.
One big change at the facility has been a transition from a mostly seasonal workforce to all year-round jobs. Byerly says that’s been possible because they’ve brought some production back to Lincoln that had previously been outsourced to other facilities. He says Hi-Country has also significantly increased its average wages.
Gianforte says he’s impressed with what Hi-Country has done.
“They’re investing in their people, they’re investing in their business, they’ve seen an increase in revenues,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing this: to create more good-paying jobs and to protect our Montana way of life.”
Gianforte began his 56-county tour in May. Since then, he’s visited businesses, schools, tribes, first responders, health care facilities and community events across the state. He says he’s seen Montanans deal with challenges like a drought, a difficult fire season and the ongoing COVID situation.
“I think the conclusion is that Montanans are resilient, and I think our best days are ahead of us,” he said.