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Yellowstone looks local in finding food to serve

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) — When David Fales sat down for a hamburger at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel last spring, he told no one who he was.

He sat alone in the long, well-lit restaurant hall overlooking Yellowstone Lake. He wore his signature cowboy hat and boots. He ordered the Wyoming beef burger cooked medium and waited.

It was the first time Fales, who owns a Cody-based company that grinds and packages beef, would eat one of his own burgers in a restaurant.

A waiter set the hamburger paired with thick french fries in front of Fales, who snapped a photo with his iPhone before he wrapped his hands around the sandwich and took a bite.

"It was perfect," Fales said.

Yellowstone National Park wants to work with more producers like Fales to put plenty of local food on menus across the park. Its goal? To make 50 percent of its food purchases from within 500 miles of the park or from a certified organic provider by 2016.

It's a target that pits profits against philosophy, as Xanterra, the park's largest concessionaire, strives to support local growers while keeping prices low in the nation's first national park.

Today, about 34 percent of the park's food is local or organic, said Dylan Hoffman, director of sustainability for Xanterra.

"We could put a menu together with all local, sustainable food items," Hoffman told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1iChU8z). "But it would be very expensive."

Keeping prices accessible for the public is a priority for the National Park Service, he said. Already, some gawk at the $12.95 price tag for the Wyoming beef burger, which comes exclusively from cows grown in Wyoming and is processed through Fales' USDA-approved value-added beef plant in Cody.

Gunning to have half the park's food be locally grown or organic and do so in the next two years is a realistic target, Hoffman said. That includes the food Xanterra buys to feed the roughly 3,000 park employees who mostly live on site during summers.

But the "little guy" in agriculture is often pricier and keeps less stock on hand than the massive grower, posing a challenge for Xanterra.

Fales, for instance, said he recently called off a deal to supply New York steaks to Yellowstone because he feared he would run out of supply for his bigger buyers, like Jackson Whole Grocer in Jackson.

Xanterra wanted to add several thousand 10-ounce cuts from Wyoming Gourmet Beef to its summer lineup, Fales said. Fales pulled out at the last minute.

"With the demand we have in Jackson Hole, I'm nervous we wouldn't have enough," he said.

Hoffman said the Wyoming beef burger, which is in its second year on menus in Yellowstone, is a popular item among visitors to the park who want to experience the West.

"It's a better story," he said of the local food movement. "And hopefully, it sells more burgers."

Fales stomped his cowboy boots through a pool of fresh disinfectant at his plant in Cody on a recent afternoon.

A long white lab coat covered his plaid shirt, and a mesh net held his wavy hair in place.

Fales opened the metal door to the packing facility, where the air smells cool and clean. He pointed to where the meat is ground, mixed with spices, smoked and packaged.

Every box in sight is labeled with the meat's origin: "Nuckolls Ranch, Hulett," and "Wagonhound Ranch, Douglas," the stickers say.

Eight employees run Fales' plant, which was built with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council in 2013. The only time Fales' cows leave Wyoming is for slaughter, he said; Wyoming does not have a USDA-approved slaughterhouse.

Knowing his cows were born and bred in Wyoming is a point of pride for Fales, who grew up on a farm and ranch near Cody.

"We're definitely in a niche market," he said. "We don't do much business in Cody, because we're so expensive."

He works with about 15 ranchers to produce about 500,000 pounds of beef a year to customers in 25 states, mostly retail grocers and some restaurants.

The cows receive no added hormones or antibiotics and live all but the last few months of their lives eating grass. Selling beef and jerky to Yellowstone makes up less than 5 percent of his business, Fales said.

Demand is growing for the Cody company. An increasing number of people want to know where their food came from and have assurances that it is safe, he said.

"I'm sure we'll expand with time," Fales said.

The sun cast long shadows across trees and grazing cattle at the Pitchfork Ranch outside Meeteetse on a recent evening.

Lenox Baker, 72, worked his extended-cab pickup down what was once a well-trod road on the 120,000-acre ranch. Now, little more than shadows of old ruts remain, grown over with tall grass.

About 1,100 cows graze on the ranch, where Baker, a retired surgeon from Virginia, now lives with his wife, daughter and dogs.

Butch Cassidy once wrangled on the Pitchfork, which was founded in 1878. Today, the cattle receive no hormones or implants. If Dan Morris, 54, the ranch manager, gives a cow an antibiotic, he marks it in the ranch record.

Baker recently sold 42 head of cattle to Fales in his first deal with the Cody company. He reckoned that the cows may end up on a plate in Yellowstone as early as August.

"We like the idea of sourcing beef and having our name on the restaurant," Baker said. "That's a new demand on the market."

Morris, who along with his wife, Darcy, has managed the Pitchfork Ranch for decades, said that with the exception of the cows sold to Fales and a few batches of brisket sold in a restaurant in Meeteetse, the ranch doesn't know where the meat from its cows ends up.

"I'd like to see people know where (the beef is) actually coming from," Morris said. "It's nice to see Wyoming get on the board."

Baker and the Morrises know firsthand how much time and effort are put into caring for the herd. They'd eat a burger made from their cows at Yellowstone National Park in a heartbeat.

That is, if they ever wanted to eat away from home, where a freezer stocked with beef they raised awaits.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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