What Montana's Independent Ranchers Need To Survive: Customers

In a squat 1,100-square-foot building on the outskirts of Helena lies a pile of enormous tongues. They are thick and leaden, stacked on a steel table like fish out of water. The bovines from which they came hulk nearby, cold carcasses hanging from cold hooks. Bearded men, their white coats covered in blood, rhythmically chop livers, punctuating the hum of industrial refrigeration.

This small meat-processing facility, which a group of ranchers started under the name Old Salt Co-op, is one of many that have appeared across the country recently. "Small" is an understatement: Old Salt can process the equivalent of 20 cattle per week, while major meat packers butcher thousands per day.

Just four companies process 85% of American beef, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though the consolidation has long affected ranchers, it was not until the pandemic - when the industry made headlines with bottlenecks, price hikes, and COVID-19 outbreaks among workers - that the general public noticed. Even the White House got involved, pledging $1 billion to boost the nation's independent meat-processing capacity. In Montana, a state with more cows than people, this helped at least 17 plants open or expand.

But in all the excitement - the ribbon cuttings on shiny new facilities, the feel-good of fighting for the little guy - it's easy to forget: What happens after that local chuck gets wrapped in cellophane? Since most independent ranchers and processors lack the volume to supply major grocery chains, their survival rides not only on how much brisket they produce, but also on how many people buy it.

Without a strong customer base, Rebecca Thistlethwaite, Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network director at Oregon State University, fears that many small processors will fail. She cited a University of Illinois study that suggested success is contingent upon local demand. "It's not a field of dreams situation; it's not an, 'If you build it, they will come,'" Thistlethwaite said. "You can't build supply chains without having that end consumer."

Local meat packers used to be more common. In 1980, the four largest companies processed just 36% of the nation's beef. The authors of a recent USDA report wrote that they "knew of no mature American industry that displayed as dramatic a change in concentration in as short a time."

The cause of that consolidation: economies of scale. "As larger processors have demonstrated lower costs of production," said Eric Belasco, Montana State University professor of agricultural economics, "it's just been harder for a smaller processing facility to compete."

While that created better margins for the "Big Four" meat packers JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and Marfrig (formerly National Beef) - it hasn't lowered prices for consumers. Since the early '80s, the inflation-adjusted cost of ground beef has risen by about 30%.

Ranchers haven't benefited either. Data on net profits is difficult to find, but gross profits are certainly down. Fifty years ago, ranchers got 60 cents of every dollar that consumers spent on beef; today, it's 39 cents, according to the White House, which noted the decline when announcing its $1 billion investment. While that money supports facility expansion and work force development, it doesn't help build markets for local meat.

Two decades ago, Lisa Wade Mayorga, whose family has ranched in Montana since 1903, abandoned the Big Four and began selling beef directly to consumers. Unlike many independent ranchers, who must travel long distances to process their meat, she had a small facility nearby.

But earlier this year, it went up for sale, putting Wade Mayorga's business in jeopardy. So she joined four other ranching families to form the Glacier Processing Cooperative, which is purchasing the plant. Though the co-op has applied for a federal grant for new equipment, its ultimate success depends on whether its members can attract and retain enough customers.

For independent ranchers, major chains - like Walmart, where 26% of America's food dollars go, are basically out of the question. "To get into a chain grocery store, you have to have volume," explained Bill Jones, Montana Premium Processing Cooperative general manager, which opened in January. Since it takes two years and roughly $2,500 to raise a single head of cattle, Jones said it's "a heck of a challenge" for ranchers to establish enough volume to interest a grocery chain.

Jones said the ranchers in his cooperative sell their meat online, at farmers markets or to local grocers, and restaurants. "And then some are doing all three," he added.

Old Salt, the Helena plant with the tongues on the table, is taking yet another approach. Rather than each ranch running its own marketing and social media and fighting for a sliver of the same small pie - Montana only has 1.1 million people, after all - the company has united four ranches under a single brand.

"There's a lot of cannibalization of each other in local food," said Cole Mannix, an Old Salt co-founder whose family has been ranching in Montana for five generations. "So we decided to try to consolidate that into one kind of regional effort." Old Salt has also gone beyond selling meat online: opening a buzzy burger stand in the heart of Helena, organizing a festival, cookouts, ranch tours, building a butcher-shop-slash-grill that will showcase its products, and host community events.

Mannix hopes those efforts convince Montanans there's a value in local meat - a value that a Walmart rib-eye can't offer. "How can all these breweries survive?" he asked. "Because they're a place for people to hang out. Local food is about human connection."

Zoe Barnard, who lives in Helena with her partner and their four children, believes that buying locally raised, grass-fed beef is healthier for her family and her community. And, since independent ranchers typically manage their cattle from birth to burger, rather than sending them to feedlots, she also believes it's more humane and ecologically sustainable. "It's just such a bizarre thing that you would go to the supermarket in Montana and buy meat that had come from Brazil," she said.

Local Food Is About Human Connection

Barnard gets an Old Salt meat box every six weeks. Since it's more expensive than shopping at the store, she serves red meat only once or twice a week. Barnard has also convinced several of her friends to get on board. "I'm like, this is the best meat I've ever tasted," she said. "I don't even get into my politics."

Whether Old Salt can find more people like Barnard is an open question - and a critical one. As Mannix put it: "If customers don't change their buying habits, local meat really doesn't have a chance."

Thistlethwaite, of Oregon State University, agrees. "I don't think [local meat processors] are going to survive unless we see consumers step up more seriously," she said. "But that's not really a message that is easy to tell. I get it: Beef is super expensive right now, it's a luxury item in my household." While Thistlethwaite said locally processed meat is often available in bulk - and is usually cheaper per pound than beef from the grocery store - she acknowledged it's not an option for many families, owing to the high up-front cost and requisite freezer space.

So Thistlethwaite thinks institutions like schools, prisons, hospitals, universities and government agencies should start buying meat locally. "That would make a huge impact," she said. "There needs to be more than just household consumers purchasing local and regional meat.


Reader Comments(0)