When meat prices rose in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ken Olson wanted to help local consumers purchase products from local producers.

Olson is the CEO of Old West Federal Credit Union, which has branches across Eastern Oregon including John Day, Baker City, La Grande, Prairie City, Union, Pendleton, Hermiston and Burns.

“He has a big heart for our communities and rural areas,” Bob Kavanaugh, vice president of business development and member experience at Old West, said of Olson.

The USDA reports that, in 2020, supply of meat products was affected by temporary closures of meatpacking plants due to COVID-19. The low supply in turn drove up prices in the grocery store.

Kavanaugh said Olson challenged an Old West team to brainstorm a solution that would make local beef more accessible — especially when money is tight.

“Food insecurity is a real thing,” Kavanaugh said. “We came up with a strategy to help our local communities purchase meat in bulk.”

The program is called the Farm to Table Loan.

Loan amounts are available from $500 to $4,000.

When someone inquires about the loan, Kavanaugh said they meet with an Old West staff to discuss the loan amount and pay-back details.

Storing meat can be a challenge for some families, too, so a freezer can be financed into the loan as well.

The 12-month loans are interest-free.

Kavanaugh said Old West introduced the program several months ago, and will relaunch it around June 1.

To initially promote the program, Old West held a raffle for “Get a Freezer, Give a Freezer Full of Beef.”

When Union County rancher Charlie Rohlf found out about the loan program, he donated half a beef to fill the second freezer. Billy Bob’s Butcher Shop in Elgin processed the meat at a reduced cost.

Union County Sheriff Cody Bowen drew the winning ticket for Brett Baxter, a high school principal in La Grande.

Baxter chose the Union Food Bank to receive the freezer full of beef, and Old West posted a video of the delivery on Facebook.

Kavanaugh said the loan program is also supported with a grant from the Northwest Credit Union Foundation.

How it works

Once a loan is approved, the borrower specifies where he or she wants to buy meat (beef, lamb, chicken, pork, etc.).

Kavanaugh said Old West cuts a check to the butcher. The loan recipient hands over the check and receives a supply of fresh meat.

When the program was about to launch, Kavanaugh called meat processors around Northeast Oregon.

At Billy Bob’s Butcher Shop, co-owner Kaleen Smith was quick to praise the idea.

“He said ‘is there a need?’ I said you’re already behind the ball,” Smith said.

She said the shop has offered its own type of loan program to help people purchase meat. And, she said, meat prices are continuing to rise.

“Not everybody had the money up front,” she said.

She’s telling customers about the Old West program, and helping connect consumers with producers, too.

“I’d advise people to look into it,” she said of the bank loan.

Rohlf said it costs about $1,200 for half a beef, which includes cutting and wrapping.

When meat supply dwindled in the grocery stores, he had more locals seeking out meat from his ranch.

The Old West program, he said, will help people buy good-quality meat and support the local economy.

“They’re helping producers, the local butcher shops, and the local community,” Rohlf said. “I told (Kavanaugh) I’ll raise as much beef as I can to help out the cause.”

To learn more about the Farm to Table Loan, call any branch of Old West Federal Credit Union.

The bank’s website is www.oldwestfcu.org.

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