On Saturday, December 3, 2022, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association met in Great Falls to discuss the current state of the cattle industry. Main topics of concern were the recent agreement between American Prairie Reserve and BLM and the state of meat packers undercutting local business.
Several cattle ranchers were upset that the Bureau of Land Management is not upholding their set of rules when applied to the American Prairie Reserve (APR). According to Walter Schweitzer, president of the Montana Farmer’s Union, the average grazing lease rate for state owned land is around $13 per animal unit depending on the average cattle price. Privately owned grazing lease rates are $30 to $50 per animal unit. BLM grazing lease rates are only $1.35 per animal unit. It is not just APR getting this rate for BLM grazing it is all BLM lease holders.
While the grazing lease allows cattle to be purchased essentially at will, everyday cattle ranchers are being forced to sell their land because they are unable to turn a profit. In some instances, to conservation easements like the APR.
This is why these concerned ranchers want to even the market price for beef in their favor, which has been upended by large meat retailer such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, and Costco. These companies set the price on beef and can do it for much cheaper than local ranchers, effectively undercutting their business, and crushing their chances of thriving within their communities.
There are anti-trust laws put in place to prevent these large corporations from engaging in this predatory behavior, but they are poorly enforced.
“If you're worried about the future of your food, you better be concerned about enforcement of the antitrust laws,” says Gilles Stockton, president of the Cattlemen’s Association.
If Montana cattle ranchers have more leverage in dictating the price of beef, then it’s more likely their smaller operations will continue to provide for generations. Not only would farms thrive but cattle could be sold within these local ranching communities, instead of to conservation easements or outsiders.
“If farmers and ranchers were making money, they would keep the family farm. They wouldn't sell the family farm. We have lost generations of family farmers because they can't make a living,” said Schweitzer.
"County taxpayers will have to pick up the tab, and these counties are virtually going to fail or die and have hardship,” said cattle rancher Jim Baker.
The key to reviving the beef market within Montana’s borders is to guarantee an insular economy.
“We need to get back to where we're raising our food locally, processing that food locally to be eaten locally,” says Schweitzer. “We had our own feedlots here in the state of Montana. We had our own processing plants and our grocery stores were full of Montana food, and that was keeping our food dollar in our local communities.”
In 2015, the market for beef in Montana experienced a crash, largely in part to the overturning of “Country of Origin Label” (COOL) for all beef products. This means packers and retailers are not required to say where the beef is imported from, a fact which is frustrating to cattle ranchers. Many share in the sentiment that the “USDA” label printed on many packages of beef are disingenuous as the mark has become a “watered down” stamp.
In fact, several of the ranchers told MTN News that often these packages marked, “USDA”, often contain beef hailing from Brazil and other countries, which do little to support the homegrown efforts on Montana soil.
The efforts to revitalize the beef economy begin by ensuring all beef is properly labeled by country of origin, and several ranchers challenged a Montana Senator in attendance to pass a law which would guarantee all groceries in Montana carry Montana raised beef products.
It’s an uphill battle, but the ranchers remain optimistic that real change can be accomplished.
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