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Mountain Country Foods is the largest employer in Blaine County, and the company has broken ground (above) on an expansion to increase the facility from 175,000 square feet to just under 300,000 square feet, the equivalent of 8.5 acres, all under one roof. (Billy Hefton | Enid News & Eagle)

OKEENE, Okla. — In 2000, Matt Dixon decided to pack up his family and move back to his native Okeene, where there was a wheat flour mill, to start Mountain Country Foods.

After graduating from Oklahoma State in 1984, Dixon worked for Ralston Purina in Edmond and then moved on to work for another pet food company in southern California. With his wife Rae and two daughters, he left California to come home and take a chance.

He sold everything to make the move to Okeene, and the family moved in with his mother as part of the transition.

Twenty-one years later, Mountain Country Foods produces treats and food for the five largest pet food companies in the world. It all started with dog treats.

“At the time (2000), I felt like the pet treats sector of the industry was underserved, and because the main ingredient was wheat flour, moving home made sense,” Dixon said.

Okeene is a town of 1,200, and Blaine County has a population of 23,000, so it was impossible to foresee the success and growth of Dixon’s company. In fact, the business has expanded — Dixon has a partner, Doug Ford, who owns a Utah side of the operation, Mountain Country Pet Care, LLC — and is planning to again, this time at home.

MCF is now the largest employer in the county, and they have broken ground on an expansion that increases the facility from 175,000 square feet to just under 300,000 square feet, the equivalent of 8.5 acres, all under one roof.

“We already employ 220 people,” Dixon said. “After the expansion opens in September, we’ll add another 60. Currently, we’re a 24/7 operation, but that expansion should let us get back to taking Sundays off. I like knocking off for a day, so we’re looking forward to that.”

When MCF opened, the operation was essentially a cookie factory, complete with large industrial ovens, conveyors and packaging. “We decided on a baking operation for the first line,” Dixon said. “Now, we make everything from dog treats to meat-based snacks. This is actually our fifth expansion.”

Meat for food and treats is ground in house. The company works with several different USDA-inspected processors and mainly buys “parts and pieces.”

“Each product has a formula,” Dixon explained. “We typically name the part — chicken breast, pork heart, that sort of thing — in the formula. For our baked food, we add proprietary blends of vitamins and minerals that we source from outside companies. Treats are just treats; they don’t require added nutrients.”

MCF handles all the shipping, too. Products are packaged in one part of the facility, and then loaded onto trucks for shipment to Amazon fulfillment centers, retail outlets and company warehouses.

The expansion, Dixon said, will allow them to convert the existing distribution center into more production and processing, a necessary step in a COVID-19 world.

“Some of this expansion is directly related to COVID,” Dixon said. “People stayed home, and so they gave their pet more treats. They adopted more pets so more food was necessary. We saw a definite increase in volume because of that.”

Dixon’s company managed to work through all of 2020 without laying off an employee due to COVID-19. It did not receive any Paycheck Protection Program loans from the government, and really didn’t need any.

The factory continued to hum day and night throughout the pandemic. Keeping all its people employed throughout 2020 is a point of pride with Dixon, and now he’s ready to enjoy a day off and spend time with his family.

“Rae and both my daughters and their husbands are full time here, too,” Dixon said. “I made the girls go off and work for other companies before they could come work for the family business, but it’s good to have all of us under one roof now.”

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Horton is a freelance writer who writes stories for the News & Eagle.

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