Sarah and Joshua Christenson pride themselves on being part of the local food economy. As co-owners of a 117-year-old ranch in western Montana, their days are spent mending fence poles, herding cattle and, increasingly, driving trailers of cows across the state to available butchers.
Ranchers across the West, including the Christensons, often truck their cows hundreds of miles to meatpacking facilities that slaughter, butcher and package the meat for sale. The highway miles add carbon emissions and financial burden to an industry that already struggles for environmental and economic sustainability. The problem is so significant that western cities like Missoula are seeking community-owned solutions to the processing bottleneck.
In today’s food system, meatpacking — the work of turning live animals into edible products, alternatively called meat processing — typically takes place far from the farm and out of state. Less than 5% of cattle born in Montana are processed in the state.
“I think a lot of consumers now don’t know that, even if they’re buying local beef, it had to leave Missoula to get processed and then come back,” said Erika Berglund, chair of the Missoula City and County Food Advisory Board.
Until the 1980s, small family ranchers brought their cows to Missoula, where numerous meat-processing businesses thrived. But that is no longer the case. Today, four companies — Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef Packing Company — have captured about 85% of the meatpacking industry. Most beef producers in the United States sell cattle to large feedlots, which fatten the cattle with grain before shipping them to one of those four processing companies.
The meatpacking monopoly proved especially harmful to consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The White House in December 2021 called the companies out for increasing beef prices by as much as 35%. Meanwhile, small producers like the Christensons struggle to support themselves through ranching alone. Christenson said selling to large out-of-state feedlots seldom generates a profit, but working directly with the few remaining small-scale processors is also costly.
Christenson said she typically spends about $400 on diesel fuel for a one-way trip to various meat processors throughout the state. She often has to take her kids and rent hotel rooms for the excursions. The Christensons have made do by partnering with processors across Montana and booking appointments 12 to 18 months in advance.
Dick Mangan and his family opened a roadside farm stand a few miles west of Missoula in 2021 to sell fresh produce and meats from their ranch. Alongside fruit and lamb and goat meat, Mangan offers several beef products. While Mangan says the stand has been successful, he has no plans to expand the beef side of the operation, in part because of the current bottlenecking at local processing facilities.
“One of the things that’s a problem is finding good butchers, finding people with that skill,” Mangan said.
Mangan currently partners with Big Sky High School’s 4-H program for meatpacking services. The high-schoolers typically process a few cows a year for him.
“That’s really small potatoes,” Mangan said, but partnering with a larger meat processor would require thousands of dollars in additional travel costs.
Mannix Family Ranch, a mid-size ranch in the Blackfoot Valley, has similarly struggled with growth. At the height of the pandemic, Logan Mannix, manager of the ranch’s grass-fed beef program, said the ranch often had up to 40 cows “hanging around, ready to go.” But he couldn’t find processors to butcher the animals.
The Mannix family trucks their cattle about 120 miles from their ranch to a regional processor in Superior. The trips are expensive and increase the carbon footprint of the beef.
The EPA estimates that a round-trip of that length would generate 94,380 grams of CO2 from tailpipe emissions. That means, based on estimates from the European Environment Agency, the Mannixes would have to plant nine trees to offset their carbon footprint every time they take their cattle to and from the processing plant.
Beef is one of the most environmentally detrimental foods on the global menu. A 2008 study in Ecological Economics found that producing one pound of beef generates about 15 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of driving a car about 20 miles. A 2020 report from the nonprofit Foodprint estimated that more than 1,840 gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of ground beef. Trucking cattle distances for processing is the gasoline-soaked, carbon-emitting icing on the cake.
If Montanans want to keep Montana-grown food — and the associated dollars — in-state, the local supply chain will have the be expanded. That includes storage and distribution infrastructure, but the bottleneck is mostly at the food processor level.
There are also some environmental benefits to raising cattle on western prairies. Many places where ranchers now raise cows once hosted massive herds of bison. The grasslands are accustomed to being grazed, as Bart Morris, owner of Oxbow Cattle Company and member of the Missoula City and County Food Advisory Board, pointed out.
“I’m a big proponent of taking care of Mother Earth. I believe in my soul that these grasslands evolved with ungulates,” Morris said.
Morris started Oxbow Cattle Company with his wife south of Missoula in 2014. The couple’s backgrounds in wildlife management and health inspired them to incorporate eco-friendly practices like rotational grazing and conservation easements.
Morris said the processing bottleneck is a challenge for the ranch’s environmental goals and economic stability. But, like many modern cowboys, Morris grew up working on ranches and can’t imagine a life without cows.
“If you looked at it as a job, you would hate it. It’s a lifestyle,” Morris said.
In Missoula, the Food Advisory Board submitted a proposal to secure funding for a feasibility study that would determine whether the city can support a meat-processing facility. While the proposal was ultimately not chosen for funding, Berglund says the Food Advisory Board is continuing to explore options for expanding local meat processing.
If a processing facility is built in Missoula, Morris would have to travel only about 35 miles round-trip. He currently drives about 120 miles for the same purpose.
Missoula isn’t the only community looking toward government-funded infrastructure. In 2022, nearly $8 million in federal funds was allocated to the creation and maintenance of small-scale agricultural businesses in Montana, including the creation of three new meat-processing facilities, each with the capacity to process 50 to 70 cows a week. Funding was also allocated to the expansion of 14 existing facilities, including one in Hamilton. This month, the USDA allocated more than $9.7 million to the development of meat and poultry processing in Great Falls, Butte, Helena and Lewiston.
Neva Hassanein, professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana, said government intervention is necessary to alleviate the processing bottleneck. She sees such initiatives as a transfer of power back to individual communities.
“We have a centralized economy in a lot of ways,” Hassanein said. “It’s just run by the companies, not the government.”
While Hassanein said the beef-processing industry has been hamstrung by monopolies for decades, she also expressed hope that a growing public understanding of the food economy will encourage more governmental regulations.
“It’s being rebuilt in recent years by the local food movement,” Hassanein said. “More and more ranchers are interested in trying to diversify.”
Consumers are also becoming more interested in knowing where their food comes from. That shift in attitude, Hassanein said, provides the ideal environment in which to rectify the longstanding processing monopoly.
For ranchers like the Christensons, the advent of new avenues to process their meat may make managing their ranch a little easier. It’s a change Sarah Christenson is looking forward to.
On an afternoon in October, Christenson worked her stall at the Missoula Farmers Market, selling cuts of beef from cows she raised. She placed a few cuts of marbled meat onto the table and ran her finger over the thin rivulets of ivory fat.
“I know this is cheesy, but I’m proud of what we produce,” Christenson said.
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