LINGLE — As we navigate trying times in the wake of COVID-19, we must embrace vision in order to beef up Wyoming’s economy. We have a rare opportunity to diversify by adding value to agriculture and becoming more self-sufficient in the process. By housing the supply chain from farm to fork in-state, we can create new jobs, ensure profitability for producers, reduce costs for consumers and ignite the local food movement. As we look at the three-legged stool of Wyoming’s economy consisting of our legacy industries — energy, agriculture and tourism — clearly, agriculture has proven to be the most stable of the three and is potentially becoming our number one industry. This makes for a solid foundation to build upon. State leaders should take note and respond accordingly.
Recent reports from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture indicate room for exponential growth in the meat-processing industry, “State Inspected Annual Processing Statistics for 2019: Beef 1,266, Hogs 768, Sheep/Lamb 404, Bison 11, Other 66 for a total of 2,515 animals processed in 2019. In comparison, the JBS S.A. beef processing plant in Greeley, CO has the capacity to slaughter 5,400 cattle in one day.”
According to the Wyoming Beef Industry Study released in February 2020 “The estimated slaughtering capacity for Wyoming processors is 21,320 annually, with 7,020 head slaughtered at federally-inspected plants and 14,300 head slaughtered at state-inspected plants……It is interesting to note that 990,413 head of cattle and calves were sold in Wyoming, while just 75,000 head were on feed in Wyoming in 2017. In 2017, only 5,100 head of cattle were slaughtered commercially in Wyoming.” Amazingly, only 7% of the 75,000 head of cattle fed in Wyoming are harvested in Wyoming and out of 990,413 cattle sold in Wyoming only 13% are on feed in State.
It is unbelievable that during a global pandemic, large foreign owned meat packers were manipulating the cattle market and gouging both producers and consumers. Both deserve better. Growing up, my Dad sold heifers at weaning and finished the steers. As buyers evaporated and large packing plants took over, producers like my Dad stopped finishing cattle. Why? Because the big packers wanted to deal with bigger feeders, larger loads and make more profits. Fast forward to present day and you can see the impact even at the cow and calf level with depressed market prices for producers and $9.00 per pound hamburger being charged to consumers at the meat counter. It is a monopoly by which four big meat packers are gleaning all the profits.
Today we have a chance to remedy the situation in Wyoming as we identify weaknesses and respond to the fundamental shift in food supply chains across the nation. There has never been a better time for farmers and ranchers to sell directly to consumers allowing both sides to control their own destiny. This approach will increase revenue to the producer while reducing costs to the consumer creating a true win-win situation.
Imagine what we can do if we work together to add value to the products we produce by raising, feeding, harvesting and marketing our livestock in Wyoming. Imagine a thriving economy with spin-off industries benefiting from every part of the process. Healthy food, local farm and ranch direct markets, organic fertilizers and increases in small feeder operations to utilize undervalued crops, while also offering better prices for crops, specialty food spin-offs (jerky, bone broth, healthy pet food), and locally sourced beef/meat for school lunches and restaurants. The possibilities are unlimited when we are committed, creative and willing to work hard. We have strong, resilient, self-reliant friends and neighbors in this state who will make the most of every opportunity when given the chance. People in other states are already leading the way by creating local food hubs across the nation such as Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado, Lone Tree Foods in Nebraska and FoodPrint in Hawaii, all of whom ramped up production during COVID-19. There are hundreds more we can learn from.
In Wyoming, the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee is exploring the local food movement and investigating the work of Central Wyoming College who is already providing meat processing training and operating a mobile harvest unit. The possibilities afforded by mobile/modular, USDA compliant, small to medium sized, fully contained meat processing plants that can be shipped via semi to any location would be a game changer for Wyoming. These plants are versatile with the ability to process multiple species of livestock and poultry. Within the CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Trump in response to COVID-19, funds were set aside for supply chain weaknesses and entrepreneurial development. A portion of Wyoming CARES Act funds should be invested in new and existing meat processing infrastructure to benefit Wyoming consumers, producers and entrepreneurs alike. It is time to act, add value and diversify the most stable tax base remaining in Wyoming, because when agriculture is healthy, all of Wyoming is healthy.