Where’s the Beef?

Economics Environment United States

New Orleans  I was talking to Steve Charter on Wade’s World about the fight with the Signal Peak coal operations around his ranch in the Bull Mountains not far from Billings, Montana.  That company has been a terror to the land and water and connected to a host of issues that should be a cautionary note to any and all, which is why their fight has gotten attention from big news sources as well as our bandwagon.  I’ve known Steve since the early days of the Northern Plains Resource Council organized over fifty years ago, so wasn’t surprised that he was in the thick of this mess, but I’ve also seen him quoted before on the trials and tribulations of family ranchers, so we went down that trail as well.

The Charter ranch is 8000 acres, which sounds huge, though Steve was careful to say it wasn’t as big as it once was, and when you add up the children and grandchildren, it may not be even this large in the future.  As mythic as ranching and its cowboys are in the story of the West and America, he’s not sure it’s sustainable given the way the markets and late stage capitalism is roiling our historic food supply chain.  

Part of the problem is monopolization allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, during the last several neoliberalist US administrations, with lax to nonexistent enforcement of anti-trust laws.   More polite folks perhaps call this consolidation, but whatever it is, and how it got there, it has left fewer and fewer, but bigger and bigger, meatpackers, which gives ranchers on the production side of this supply chain, less and less bargaining power.  As the Times reported over a year ago:

The basic laws of economics suggest what happens when the packers cut their capacity to process beef: The supply is reduced, increasing consumer prices. At the same time, fewer slaughterhouses limits the demand for live cattle, lowering prices paid to ranchers for their animals — an advantage for the packers.

So, even though the demand for beef has increased, the supply has been forced down, helping the middle man monopolies and squeezing the ranchers and the buyers creating a vicious and unsustainable cycle.

Steve and other Montana ranchers were selling cattle for less than it cost to raise them, even while watching the prices go up in stores and empty shelves during the pandemic, forcing them to seriously consider, even after many decades in the business, whether they would have to sell their herds.  Steve was quick to credit his daughter with the scheme to try and go around the big packers to locals and sell directly in Montana.  Now, they are selling in bulk and through a distributor in Montana, and before I reckoned with our lack of a deep freezer, I asked if the rest of us could get meat directly from Charter Beef and Livestock, and he simply said, “Talk to my daughter.” They also have a special way they are working their range and keeping it healthy. They sell something called “vermicast” that combines with worms, and I should stop right there, because I’m way out of my lane.

Regardless, as Steve told me and, even more eloquently, was quoted in the Times:

“People shouldn’t be worried about us because we’re kind of quaint and it’s nice to have the cowboys out there.  We need a food system that serves everyone, and not just a handful of companies.”

“You’re having consumers exploited on one end of the supply chain, cattle producers exploited on the other,” said Bill Bullard, a former rancher who now heads an advocacy group, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. “The meatpackers are making all-time record profits.”