ABOVE: Matt McNany (scroll down to see more photos)
HARRISVILLE, Pa. — Matt McNany already has a solid market contracted for his cattle for the next 10 years. And calls for more beef than he raise.
It’s a good position to be in, especially considering McNany is only 16.
A student at Franklin Area High School, McNany wanted to find a way to farm. He hung around his grandparents farm, and his dad, Doug, raised a few pigs on their 12 acres. But he needed to figure out how to “grow a farm” without any resources.
“If you want it, you gotta work for it,” his dad told him.
Then, one day last spring, his mother, Lynnetta, came home with an idea from her work with the Bon Appetit Management Company in nearby Grove City.
Bon Appetit, which provides the food service for Grove City College, wanted to expand its use of local foods through a program called Farm to Fork. It already bought fruit and vegetables from local produce growers, but it was looking for local farmers to provide the college meat, too. Why couldn’t Matt raise beef to sell to the college?
Weighed the options
The decision wasn’t automatic. First of all, although the McNanys had a couple head of cattle they raised for freezer beef, they had nowhere near the numbers it would take for a steady supply of beef for the college during the school year. And Matt didn’t have the capital to buy feeder calves.
Secondly, Matt would have to get certified and agree to certain stipulations in the contract.
He would also have to find a meat processor that had a USDA inspector onsite.
But Matt decided to jump into the new enterprise. “I’d rather work for myself than anyone else,” he said.
In order to provide beef through the Farm to Fork program, Matt had to get certified, carry $5 million liability insurance on the farm, and $1 million on the vehicle used to transport the cattle. That last insurance policy alone took three or four months to finalize, Matt said.
Then, program inspectors had to come check his barn and facilities. The cattle can’t be housed in a feedlot, or continually on concrete, and must have access to pasture. It’s not an organic program, but “they have to be happy cows,” Matt grinned. He also has to work to follow animal welfare standards.
The animals have to be under 30 months and run less than 19 percent fat.
He had to make sure he had a meat processor who would also work with him, and found an ally in Dave Hirsch, of Hirsch Meats, in Kossuth, Clarion County. Hirsch also had to have his facility inspected before McNany could begin selling to Bon Appetit.
McNany finished his process in August, but it was the first week of October, before he sent his first beef to the college.
Bon Appetit placed their order directly with McNany, who has to personally get the cows to the processor, and then pick up the packaged meat and deliver it to the college himself.
Beefing up his herd
Getting all the paperwork done wasn’t going to mean anything, if McNany couldn’t find some cattle of various ages to finish out for this first school year.
That’s where nearby farmers, brothers Ed and Pete Weber, come in. The Webers offered a handshake deal to the teen, selling him steers at market price, and waiting for payment until Matt himself got paid by Bon Appetit. He’s also worked an arrangement for some feeder calves from them, because he’s got to ensure that he has animals at market weight of 1,200 to 1,300 pounds throughout the school year. He estimates he’ll need to finish out between 81 and 90 steers a year.
“I couldn’t have done this if it wasn’t for the Webers,” McNany said.
He currently has 14 bred heifers now, but realizes he needs more brood cows.
Costs add up
He started with some homegrown feed, and the Webers let McNany use their grinder on a small amount of corn from last year, but he’s had to buy most of his feed this first year, traveling to auctions to buy ensilage bales at farm estate auctions.
And while he’s been at those auctions, McNany has added quite a few pieces of machinery, too. He’s bought a older Case 1210 tractor, round baler, disc, rake and other equipment. McDowell Implement in Grove City liked what they saw in the young man’s initiative, and offered in-house financing for a skid steer.
He’s reseeded the pastures, and with some limited help from his father, who is disabled, McNany tore down some old houses, recycling the lumber for building headlocks and changing the existing horse stalls in the barn.
“We pretty much had to start from scratch,” he said.
“It would be different if we could help him [financially],” said his father, adding that trying to get loans is nearly impossible for the teen.
The hard work means long days for the high schooler, who has an hour-long bus ride to school that starts at 7 a.m., and it’s 4:30 before he gets back home.
“Then I change my clothes and start working on something.”
He does allow himself a break to compete on the Cowboy Up youth rodeo circuit, where he wrestles steers.
He worried that he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his commitment, or that the college wouldn’t be happy with his beef, but sometimes, after making a delivery, he walks into the dining hall and sees the students lined up to taste his local beef, which he says is his real reward.
“Sometimes you second guess yourself, but the next morning, you wake up and you want to do it all over again,” McNany said.