Where’s your food from? Upstart meat share looks to source locally grown animals raised humanely

Jen Knoetgen, a former accountant, has launched Mountain Meat Shares, a business that looks to put ethics back into eating and ensure the animals destined for the dinner table have lived a fulfilling life. Customers can subscribe to a monthly box of meats sourced from local farms. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current))

When Jen Knoetgen came to the stark realization that her work as an accountant would never change, she began looking to the next chapter of her life. As it turned out, she would fall back on something familiar – her connection to food and the animals that provide it.

As the founder of Mountain Meat Shares, Knoetgen’s upstart subscription business is sourcing cows, pigs and chickens from local farms that she has vetted personally. It’s one step in her push to bring ethics back to eating and ensure the animals destined for the dinner table have lived a fulfilling life.

“The horrors of industrial confinement meat operations are no secret,” Knoetgen said. “The impact to the animals, the workers, the environment and our health is known. Choosing – and it is a choice – to eat meat comes with a responsibility to know how the animals are raised.”

Knoetgen herself was raised in upstate New York by her Slovenian immigrant grandparents who grew their own food. From dairy cows and chickens to beets and fruit, the food became familiar, and there was never a question of where it came from.

The work was hard but rewarding, and while Knoetgen found satisfaction in the resulting butter, meat and milk, caring for the animals throughout their life was something that would stay with her.

“I’ve recreated that same life here in Montana,” said Knoetgen, who moved to Montana 20 years ago and now runs a farm in Arlee. “Over the years, we’ve grown all the meat we eat. We raised a number of pigs, meat rabbits, meat chickens and hens for eggs. It’s been important to me to only eat meat if I know where it comes from.”

It’s that latter concept that prompted Knoetgen to explore life outside her career as an accountant. She began toying with the idea of sourcing local meat to consumers who, like her, wanted to know where it came from and how it was raised.

While not everyone has the courage to kill the animal they intend to consume, she said, many consumers want to eat ethically. Like her, they’re looking to avoid anonymous meat wrapped in cellophane and sold for mass consumption at national grocery chains.

Most of those products come direct from industrial meat operations and factory slaughterhouses.

“How can you eat something if you don’t know how it was treated?” Knoetgen asks rhetorically. “I know for all the time my animals are with me, they live the best life I can provide them, and they get to do the things they do naturally. The chickens scratch outside, the pigs roll in the dirt, and the cows sleep in the sun. It’s like that to their last day.”

If Knoetgen didn’t have such control over the satisfaction and care of her animals, she says convincingly, she would stop eating meat. She applies the same scrutiny to the farms she’s now working with as Mountain Meat Shares gears up for its first shipment of locally sourced meat.

Over the past year, Knoetgen has toured, interviewed and partnered with three operations, including the Oxbow Cattle Co. in Missoula, where the cows are all-natural and grass fed, and the Lyon Ranch in Drummond, where she has secured five pigs for the first shipment of meat.

“The pigs are all raised on pasture,” she said. “Most pigs raised for food are raised on concrete in confinement. They don’t get to roll in the dirt or see sunshine. It’s really important for me not to have confinement pigs.”

Jen Knoetgen inspects the brooder house at Living River Farms, where Mountain Meat Shares will source its poultry. (Courtesy photo)

The chickens sourced from Living River Farms in Stevensville also roam free, unlike their caged counterparts at brand-name factories. Knoetgen has visited Living River’s brooder house and its pasture, where the chickens spend their lives.

“They raise their chickens on pasture through the summer months from March to November and process that chicken at their facility,” said Knoetgen. “Having raised chickens since I was 8, I know how hard it is, and the margin is slim when you can buy chicken for cheap at the store. It’s important for me to source chickens from farmers who are doing the work of raising quality animals.”

Knoetgen, who holds a passion for eating and cooking, along with animal welfare, looks to combine the three pursuits into Mountain Meats. Subscribers to the service gain access to recipes and other add-ons, including soup bones, organs and chicken feet.

The goal, she said, is to consume the entire animal and leave nothing to waste.

“Our first subscription offer will include chicken, beef and pork,” she said, though not every box will include all three. “Each box will be a mix of frozen meats that are sourced from the whole animals we have purchased directly from local farmers and have had processed at local butcher shops.”

As the business grows, it plans to source lamb, bison, goat and rabbit. To find out more, visit Mountain Meat Shares.