I’m big on solo road trips, but I don’t hit the pavement without a bag of snacks, including sunflower seeds, string cheese, a Snickers candy bar and jerky. I consider jerky the perfect snack food — it's low in calories, full of protein, non-messy and has an endless shelf life.
Archaeologists found the earliest indication of jerky in Egypt, where dried foods were discovered in excavated tombs. Drying out meat, poultry and fish has been a means of survival for cultures worldwide, especially where there is no option to freeze or refrigerate provisions for sustained use. In ancient times, the meat was cut into strips and laid in the sun to dry out. While this method is still used today in some societies, smoker ovens and specialty cookers do the job of crafting jerky.
Montana’s major player in crafting jerky is Hi-Country Snack Foods in Lincoln. Jim Johnson founded the business in 1976. Originally from Michigan, Jim found Montana the ideal place for big game hunting and settled in Lincoln. The company sold in September 2019 to Molly and Travis Byerly of Bozeman. Travis has an extensive background in wholesale distribution and had previously owned the Montana Fish Company. On-site as chief operating officer is Steve Fehrs. Steve’s experience in production and manufacturing keeps the wheels running smoothly at Hi-Country. As Travis describes their team, “I’m the visionary, and Steve is the one that brings my visions to life.”
Because Montana has no major meat processing plants, all the beef and buffalo used in Hi-Country products come from the Pacific Northwest states (Montana, Idaho, Washington and Wyoming). Hi-Country uses an Idaho processing plant. One of the goals that Travis has set is getting a major Montana processing facility up and running. “If Montana farmers and ranchers can take their meat to an in-state processing plant, and we can purchase the raw meats directly, we’re eliminating the middleman.” That would result in our ag communities securing better prices for their animals, and we in turn, would also see more favorable pricing for the meat we need for production. It’s a win-win.” It would also ensure that Hi-Country Snack Foods would have 100% of its products from Montana sources.
The manufacturing plant sits 2 1/2 miles west of Lincoln on Hwy 200. All the products are produced, packaged and shipped from Lincoln. The manufacturing facility is USDA- and FDA-inspected. Next door to the plant is the Hi-Country Trading Post, opened in 1996. This retail store carries not only Hi-Country products, but an extensive array of Made in Montana food items, such as cheese, jams, syrups and candy. The store also carries a large selection of Montana-made gifts and apparel. The Trading Post just added a full line of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation-branded Yeti tumblers and coolers, hats, shirts, sweatshirts and backpacks. Between the store and the plant, Hi-Country is the largest employer in Lincoln, providing 30-32 jobs.
While Hi-Country started out producing jerky, it has expanded to include a line of meat sticks and bites, rubs, seasonings and powders. They offer do-it-yourself jerky and sausage kits, casings, curing salt and bulk seasoning for at-home processing. What sets their jerky apart from other brands is the use of proprietary tender sliced technology. Taking the solid muscle beef rounds and tenderizing those makes for an easier and consistent chew. Hi-Country also produces 100% USA beef dog treats.
Every month Hi-Country receives about 28 containers of the beef rounds, with each container weighing 2,000 pounds. The meat is then broken down into jerky-size pieces, tenderized, seasoned, then smoked. In addition to the usual beef-flavored treats, Hi-Country features Peppered, Teriyaki, Honey Kist, and a Sweet & Zesty variety.
Another unique product is proprietary powdered smoke. Season any cut of meat, fish, or poultry with the powder and refrigerate overnight for a day or two, then roast or grill. You get the smoky flavor without needing a smoker. Flavors include Applewood, Hickory and Mesquite.
Travis is always on the lookout for partnerships with Montana businesses. Hi-Country recently partnered with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, located in Missoula, whereby Hi-Country will provide unique packaging with the RMEF brand. A portion of the proceeds from those packages will go to help support the conservation efforts of the Foundation. Hi-Country has a similar arrangement with University of Montana and Montana State University, with Grizzly and Bobcat clearly marked on specialty packaging. A portion of the proceeds from the sales of these products goes back to the schools.
The latest collaboration involves infusing Hi-Country’s wild game jerky (bison and elk) with spirits from Bozeman Spirits Distillery. Bison and Elk are available in the following flavors: Original Honey Whiskey, Flathead Cherry Whiskey, Elk Huckleberry Vodka with Pepper, and Bison Pepperoni. These unique Montana options are packaged under the label of Yellowstone Natural.
Hi-Country Trading Post is open seven days a week, with hours varying during the winter months. Call 406-362-4780 to confirm hours if stopping by. You can find Hi-Country Snack Foods in convenience stores, gas stations, Town Pump, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Sportsman’s Warehouse and Albertsons across Montana, and throughout the United States. You can also order online at www.hicountry.com.
3 cups ketchup (24 oz. bottle)
2 cups brown sugar
4 Tbsp. Hi-Country Bar-B-Que Jerky seasoning
4 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. dark molasses
2 Tbsp. minced onion
2 Tbsp. vinegar
2 tsp. garlic salt
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
Stir all ingredients together until thoroughly blended. Store unused sauce in the refrigerator. The recipe makes about 1 quart of sauce.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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