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

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

“Making It Work” is a series about small business owners trying to survive difficult times.

Many people can have romantic images of a Montana ranch – wide valleys, cold rivers, snow-capped mountains – but 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 residents, only about 1 percent of the beef Montana households buy comes from local production and processing, according to the consulting firm Highland Economics. Like the rest of the country, many Montanans eat beef from faraway places like Brazil instead.

This is the usual fate of a cow that starts out on pasture in Montana: It is bought by one of the four largest meatpackers – JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Marfrig – which process 85 percent of the country's beef. It is transported by companies like Sysco or US Foods, which together are worth more than $50 billion, and then sold at Walmart or Costco, which together account for about half of America's grocery sales. Any rancher who wants to break out of this system and, for example, sell his beef locally instead of shipping it crisscrossing the country as an anonymous commodity is a David in a flock of Goliaths.

“The beef packers have a lot of control,” says Neva Hassanein, a professor at the University of Montana who studies sustainable food systems. “They have a huge impact on the entire supply chain.” For the country's ranchers, whose profits have shrunk over time, that's “kind of a trap,” she says.

Cole Mannix tries to escape this trap.

Mannix, 40, has a tendency to wax philosophical. (He once considered becoming a Jesuit priest.) Like members of his family since 1882, he grew up on the ranch: baling hay, helping birth calves and driving cattle to the high country on horseback. He wants to make sure the next generation, the sixth, has the same opportunities.

That's why in 2021, Mr. Mannix co-founded Old Salt Co-op, a company that aims to revolutionize the way people buy meat.

While many Montana ranchers sell their calves to the multi-billion dollar industry at less than a year of age and never see them again or profit from them, Old Salt's cattle never leave the company's hands. The cattle are raised on Old Salt's four member ranches, slaughtered and processed at the company's meat processing plant, and sold through the company's restaurants, events and website. The ranchers who own the company profit at every stage.

The technical term for this approach, in which one company controls different elements of its supply chain, is vertical integration. However, many small meat plants do not attempt this because it requires huge capital costs up front.

“These are scary times,” Mannix said, referring to the company's considerable debt. “We're really trying to invent something new.”

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

It would have been much easier for Old Salt to just open a meat processing plant, like some ranchers have, and forego restaurants and events. (In fact, that's where most of the national attention has focused: The White House recently allocated $1 billion to independent meat processors, citing the lack of competition from the big meatpackers.)

But, according to Mannix, that would not solve the other problem ranchers face: difficulty accessing distributors and customers. “It doesn't matter if you have a good processing plant if you can't sell the product,” he said. “You can't rebuild the food system by just pouring a bunch of money into one component of that food system.”

“Old Salt” is his attempt to rebuild the whole damn thing.

And people are taking notice. “Old Salt is a beacon,” says Robin Kelson, executive director of Abundant Montana, a nonprofit that promotes local food. “They're showing all of us that it's possible to make the system work by combining companies and working together in creative ways.”

On a recent Saturday, Helena's newest restaurant, Union, was a hive of activity. A charcoal-fired grill hummed as customers dined on steaks and ribs; a butcher shop gleamed out front with bacon and breakfast sausages, all from Old Salt's member farms.

This restaurant and butcher shop is Old Salt's newest venture. It joins the Outpost, a burger stand in a 117-year-old bar, and the Old Salt Festival, a food- and music-filled celebration of sustainable agriculture on the Mannix Ranch that takes place in late June and is now in its second year, as well as the company's meat processing plant and meat subscription program.

Andrew Mace, co-founder and head chef of Old Salt, probably wouldn't recommend starting five businesses in three years. But he said it was all part of the company's “very ambitious plan to reinvent the local meat economy.”

While Mace wants to make a profit from all of Old Salt's operations, her higher purpose is to serve as a marketing tool for the meat subscription service: getting diners to fall in love with Union's rib-eye steak and then sign up to have the company's “steak and chop package” delivered to them each month.

Old Salt has set a goal of selling meat to 10,000 families annually over the next five years, compared to about 800 families currently living in the country. That won't be easy: Americans are used to buying ground beef at the supermarket, not through a website.

“It just takes a lot of understanding of people’s spending habits,” says Mace, “and making them understand that they are not just buying meat, they are investing in the local landscape.”

That's important to Mr. Mannix, who personally selected Old Salt's members from more than 9,000 ranches across the state because they share his commitment to regenerative ranching, a set of principles that aim to regenerate soils and reduce the environmental impact of cattle.

His overall goal is to give ranchers more money so they can invest more time and money into managing their lands. (In total, Old Salt's ranches manage more than 200,000 acres, an area 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 cattle from ranchers and ultimately, as they grow, has an incentive to pay as little as possible for those cattle,” Mr. Mannix said. “Then there's less money left to pay for the time it takes to really take care of the ecosystems.”

By combining four ranches under one brand, members were also able to pool their products and marketing resources instead of competing with each other.

“It takes some courage to do what they're doing, but we need people like that to lead the way and show us the way,” said Dr. Hassanein, a professor at the University of Montana. Although it may seem ironic, given that beef production is responsible for nearly 9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, she said she supports these ranches precisely because she cares about wildlife and the environment.

“These are well-known ranches; many of them are award-winning conservationists,” said Dr. Hassanein. “If they can't survive economically, we really have to ask ourselves what will take their place.”

That's a question many of Old Salt's ranchers are asking themselves, as they struggle with both economic and environmental pressures. Cooper Hibbard, a fifth-generation rancher and chairman of Old Salt's board of directors, puts it this way: “It's clear from every angle that we can't keep doing what we're doing, or we'll have no ranch to pass on to the next generation.”

“We're trying to create a new model,” he said. “We're really giving it our all.”