MT. HOOD, Ore. – Nothing about 16 years of installing and repairing cell phone towers suggested to Jason Johnston that he would ever dive with gusto into the trade of custom cut butchery.
Nearly two years after he and his wife, Toria, stumbled onto the opportunity to buy Mountain Valley Meat Service, Johnston is all smiles as he ponders the transformation – for him, and for his family.
They were living in Odell, looking for property to build a house when Toria found herself talking with Pat Marrick, the longtime owner of Mountain Valley Meat Service. She had been a 4-H leader for 19 years, and had her kids at Marrick’s facility on Miller Road to learn about grading whole-carcass meat.
“We said, ‘Sell us your property,’” Toria says. “And he said, ‘It comes with a business.’”
Jason had been hurt in an accident and couldn’t drive the long distances he once did. He wanted more time with Toria and their three children, Zayleah, 11, Wyatt, 5, and Rylen, 7 months.
“I was gone five to seven days a week,” he says. “It was time for a change.”
He fishes and hunts, but had never done any professional butchery. The Marricks had been wanting to sell for awhile, and were willing to train a replacement.
“We didn’t want to see it shut down,” Jason says. “Pat said, ‘I’ll train you, and after four weeks, you’re on your own.’”
Deal done. “I like learning and figuring out new and better ways to do things,” Jason says.
The couple knew the valley needed the butcher, which does slaughter, custom cuts on all farm animals and game, plus specialty preparations like sausage and smoked meats.
“We’re doing 15 beef a week,” Jason says, in mid-October. “We’re also doing that many pigs.”
Not to mention that his cold storage had 60 deer hanging, waiting for their turn.
“I had to stop taking them a week ago,” Jason says. “We took 110 deer this season. We ran out of room.”
After the surge of business following hunting season, things slow down a bit early in the year. But Hood River County residents who raise a few animals for their own meat – or to sell to other people for their needs – start bringing livestock to Jason in late spring.
“They want to get in before county fair season starts,” Toria says.
Mountain Valley Meat is scheduled to serve buyers this year at the Hood River, Wasco, Klickitat, Sherman and Skamania county fairs. Theirs is the only facility of its kind in Hood River County, and one of only two in the Gorge.
“We do a lot for the Krepps Ranch (in Klickitat County),” Jason says. “We also do a lot of smoked turkeys and hams. We do 80 for Thanksgiving, and do 100 for Burlington Northern for the holidays.”
Demand is exceeding capacity. Since taking over in late 2014, the Johnstons have added a new freezer that tripled capacity on wrapped meats. They want to expand the building, and redesign the production flow inside. For now, they’re handling as much meat as they can.
“We’re booked solid through January,” Jason says.
Brian and Latricia Knox from Longview, Wash., were loading beef into coolers in the back of their pickup truck on a late October morning.
They said it’s worth the drive to know the people who raised the animal (Richard and Roberta Stearns of Odell) and the people who cut and wrapped it.
“I can’t buy beef in the grocery store,” Latricia said.
Jason and his crew have adjusted some recipes, added their own, put a new spin on their brined and smoked products. Jason says they aren’t licensed to sell product retail, but can do all sorts of custom cuts on up to whole-animal preparations for private parties or restaurants.
It must be working. Demand for smoked product has doubled, Jason says. Sara Link, of Goldendale, is one of those happy customers.
“Last year in July, my son got married, and I took a couple hogs over to Jason to have him smoke them whole for the reception,” says Link. “Everybody ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at the meat. They said it was the best they’ve ever had.”
She says she has other, closer options for processing her hogs, “but I prefer to take them to Parkdale.”
Running the front office after years of medical transcription, Toria says she and her husband have no regrets. She can tend the baby at the other end of the room, and her husband is right across the driveway.
A lot. Jason says it’s hard work, but not as hard as working cell towers.
“I’m here to midnight every day,” he says. “There’s a ways to go to get it like we want. But I get to see the kids every day, go to their school events, and I get to kiss them goodnight.”