Montana Has More Cows Than People. Why Are Locals Eating Beef From Brazil?

June 13, 2024

Montana Has More Cows Than People. Why Are Locals Eating Beef From Brazil?

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“Making It Work” is a series is about small-business owners striving to endure hard times.

While many people can conjure up romantic visions of a Montana ranch — vast valleys, cold streams, snow-capped mountains — few understand what happens when the cattle leave those pastures. Most of them, it turns out, don’t stay in Montana.


Even here, in a state with nearly twice as many cows as people, only around 1 percent of the beef purchased by Montana households is raised and processed locally, according to estimates from Highland Economics, a consulting firm. As is true in the rest of the country, many Montanans instead eat beef from as far away as Brazil.

Here’s a common fate of a cow that starts out on Montana grass: It will be bought by one of the four dominant meatpackers — JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Marfrig — which process 85 percent of the country’s beef; transported by a company like Sysco or US Foods, distributors with a combined value of over $50 billion; and sold at a Walmart or Costco, which together take in roughly half of America’s food dollars. Any ranchers who want to break out from this system — and, say, sell their beef locally, instead of as anonymous commodities crisscrossing the country — are Davids in a swarm of Goliaths.

“The beef packers have a lot of control,” said Neva Hassanein, a University of Montana professor who studies sustainable food systems. “They tend to influence a tremendous amount throughout the supply chain.” For the nation’s ranchers, whose profits have shrunk over time, she said, “It’s kind of a trap.”

Cole Mannix is trying to escape that trap.

Mr. Mannix, 40, has a tendency to wax philosophical. (He once thought about becoming a Jesuit priest.) Like members of his family have since 1882, he grew up ranching: baling hay, helping to birth calves, guiding cattle into the high country on horseback. He wants to make sure the next generation, the sixth, has the same opportunity.

So, in 2021, Mr. Mannix co-founded Old Salt Co-op, a company that aims to upend the way people buy meat.

While many Montana ranchers sell their calves into the multibillion-dollar industrial machine when they’re less than a year old, never to see or profit from them again, Old Salt’s livestock never leave the company’s hands. The cattle are raised by Old Salt’s four member ranches, slaughtered and processed at its meatpacking facility, and sold through its ranch-to-table restaurants, community events and website. The ranchers, who have ownership in the company, profit at every stage.

The technical term for this approach — in which a company controls various elements of its supply chain — is vertical integration. It’s not something many small meat businesses try, as it requires a huge amount of upfront capital.

“It’s a scary time,” Mr. Mannix said, referring to the company’s sizable debt. “We’re really trying to invent something new.”

But, he added, “No matter how risky it is to start a business like Old Salt, the status quo is riskier.”

It would have been much simpler for Old Salt to open just a meat processing facility, as some ranchers have, and not bother with restaurants and events. (In fact, that’s where much of the national attention has focused: The White House recently committed $1 billion to independent meat processors, citing the major meatpackers’ lack of competition.)

But Mr. Mannix said that would not have addressed the other issue that ranchers face: difficulty accessing distributors and customers. “It doesn’t matter if you have a nice processing facility if you can’t sell the product,” he said. “You can’t rebuild the food system by just throwing a bunch of money at one component of that food system.”

Old Salt is his attempt to rebuild the whole darn thing.

And people are taking notice. “Old Salt is a beacon,” said Robin Kelson, executive director of Abundant Montana, a nonprofit organization promoting local food. “They are showing the rest of us that by stacking enterprises, by collaborating in creative ways, it is possible to make the system work.”

On a recent Saturday, downtown Helena’s newest restaurant, the Union, was buzzing. A wood-fired grill sizzled as diners ate steaks and short ribs; up front, a butcher case gleamed with bacon and breakfast sausages. All of it came from Old Salt’s member ranches.

This restaurant-slash-butchery is Old Salt’s latest venture. It joins the Outpost, a burger stand inside a 117-year-old bar, and the Old Salt Festival, a food- and music-filled celebration of sustainable agriculture at the Mannix ranch in late June, now in its second year. That’s in addition to the company’s meat processing facility and subscription meat program.

Andrew Mace, Old Salt’s co-founder and culinary director, probably wouldn’t recommend starting five businesses in three years. But he said this was all part of the company’s “very ambitious plan to reimagine the local meat economy.”

While Mr. Mace wants all of Old Salt’s outfits to turn a profit, their greater purpose is serving as marketing vehicles for the meat subscription service: for diners to fall in love with the Union’s rib-eye, and then sign up to get the company’s “steak and chop bundle” delivered every month.

In the next five years, Old Salt’s goal is to sell meat to 10,000 families annually, up from around 800 now. It won’t be easy: Americans are used to purchasing ground chuck from the grocery store, not from a website.

“It just takes a lot to pry into people’s spending habits,” Mr. Mace said, “and get them to understand that you’re not just buying meat, you’re investing in local landscapes.”

That matters to Mr. Mannix. He handpicked Old Salt’s members from more than 9,000 ranches across the state because they share his dedication to regenerative ranching, a set of principles that seeks to replenish soils and lessen cattle’s environmental impact.

His overarching goal is putting more money into these ranchers’ hands so they can put more time and money into stewarding their lands. (Altogether, Old Salt’s ranches manage more than 200,000 acres, a parcel larger than Shenandoah National Park.)

That’s why Old Salt’s ranchers own the majority of the company and share in the profits. “We didn’t want to be a meat company that buys livestock from ranchers and, ultimately, as it grows, has an incentive to pay as little as it can for those livestock,” Mr. Mannix said. “That leaves less money to pay for the time that it takes to really care for ecosystems.”

Uniting four ranches under one brand has also allowed the members to pool their products and marketing resources, rather than compete against one another.

“It takes some boldness to do what they are doing, but we need people out front like that to show the way,” said Dr. Hassanein, the University of Montana professor. Though it may seem ironic, given that beef production accounts for nearly 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, she said she supported these ranches precisely because she cares about wildlife and the environment.

“These are well-known ranches; many of them are award-winning conservationists,” Dr. Hassanein said. “If they can’t survive economically, then we really have to ask ourselves what’s going to come in their place.”

That’s a question many of Old Salt’s ranchers, who are navigating both economic and environmental pressures, have been asking too. As Cooper Hibbard, a fifth-generation rancher and president of Old Salt’s board, put it, “It’s clear from all angles that we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, otherwise we won’t have a ranch to pass off to the next generation.”

“We’re trying to chart a new model,” he said. “We’re really swinging for the fences.”

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