In his office overlooking downtown Kalispell’s Main Street, John Wagner looks the picture of a lawyer in his jacket and tie. The walls feature photographs of wide-open spaces and cattle, not unusual for décor in Northwest Montana.
But take a look at his business cards and you’ll see the two aspects are quite related.
“I’m the Barrister of Beef,” Wagner says as he exchanges his suit jacket for a Carhartt vest and cap, each with the KM Montana Grassfed Beef insignia on them. (A barrister is another word for lawyer, used more frequently in Great Britain.)
John and his brother Mark Wagner are the co-owners of KM Montana Grassfed Beef, a legacy their family has passed down for generations, since their great-grandfather established the ranch on 6,000 lush acres between Lewistown and Havre more than 122 years ago.
And now, riding the momentum of the food-to-table movement that has gained popularity in America via the simple idea that people should know where their food comes from, the Wagners are ready to expand their beef business.
“The No. 1 consumer concern is the source,” Wagner said. “People want to know where it’s from, what medications or steroids it was given.”
For KM Beef, that’s never a question. The herd the Wagners work with now is the same line their great-grandfather Edward Lawlor established on the land in 1894. He staked out the ranch after searching for 10 years for the right place to set down his roots, and chose the land in the Bear Paw Mountains.
Wagner said his great-grandparents and grandparents were quite progressive when it came to feeding and growing cattle, depending on natural solutions such as supplementing the cattle’s diets with kelp and foregoing the trend of growing the animals faster through antibiotics, gluten, steroids and feedlots.
The grass on which his cattle feed is chock full of nutrients, better than the quality of grass a rancher might find on the west side of the Continental Divide. And though the ranch is only 6,000 acres – small in comparison to the neighbor ranches of 20,000 and 25,000 acres – the concentration of spring water makes it ideal for cattle, Wagner said. It used to be grass range for sheep, he said, and before that, it was part of the bison’s natural territory.
Now, the techniques his great-grandparents established are the ones that make KM beef standout. The ground beef is made with all the prime cuts of beef, everything except the tenderloin. That means the ground beef includes brisket, New York strip, and other choice parts of the animal, it’s not the leftovers that couldn’t be turned into steaks.
All of their meat is processed locally at Lower Valley Processing, for which Wagner is thankful. The dearth of processing plants has caused a centralization of the cattle and pork industry, he said, with only a few companies controlling the processing and feedlot aspects of the industry.
Beef is no longer required to have a country-of-origin label in the United States, and Wagner wants to change that. Each piece of KM beef is marked not only with the widely recognized “Made in Montana” label, but the less-seen “Grown in Montana” label as well. That way, customers know the beef they’re eating was raised and processed right here, instead of being raised in Brazil and shipped to Texas where it would then get a “Made in America” designation.
“We’re just a different choice,” Wagner said. “I want to give people an option to buy a piece of beef that they know where it comes from and what went into it.”
Customers can now find KM beef in all of the valley’s Super 1 grocery stores, as well as Markus Foods, Third Street Market, Perfect Cuts, and several grocery stores in Missoula.
It’s also served in select restaurants, such as Missoula’s James Bar, but Wagner said there’s a possibility for more. The main focus is to continue westward, eventually getting KM grassfed Montana beef into the Spokane and Seattle markets.
There’s potential for beef to become like a flight of wine, with meat from different areas all showcasing different flavors. Microbeef and microbrews, Wagner said.
“Our cattle are genetically selected to fit that environment,” Wagner said. “We like to think about it as craft beef.”
For more information, visit www.kmmontanagrassfedbeef.com.