Like most ranchers this time of year, Walter Schweitzer is in the thick of calving season. His family farm in Geyser is on overdrive as he wakes up to more and more calves every morning. But right now his bigger concern isn’t about what’s happening every day, it’s about what this new life means for his ranch during a worldwide pandemic. A pandemic that’s shedding new light to an old problem.
You might be thinking Montana’s cattle producers are raking in the big dough during the COVID-19 outbreak as beef and other meat products continue to fly off the shelf, but Walt says that’s not the case at all.
“It all trickles down where all of the cattle ranchers and the cattle producers are getting less for their cows as well. And then ya know the consumers are paying more right now and the meat counters are empty. There's something broken with this system,” said Walter Schweitzer, President of the Montana Farmers Union.
The system these men and women have been dealing with for years.
We’re talking about multinational packers. There are 4 major meatpacking companies in the entire world, and in the U.S. they control more than 80% of beef processing.
"It's nothing new to me; these multinational packers have been doing that my whole life. Since Coronavirus they’re selling more boxed beef at a higher price than they were before and yet they're paying the cattle producer less," said Schweitzer.
We reached out to all four packing companies this week. Two of the four pointed us to the website Cattle Fax, which is essentially a consulting firm of the packers. They have not responded to our request for an interview.
As the Coronavirus continues to dominate our headlines it’s also bringing a new light to this situation.
Senator Jon Tester is weighing in, saying “We've seen cattle prices drop pretty significantly and we haven’t seen that price drop at the grocery store and quite frankly, it's significant enough where if we're not there to help these folks in the short term, and in the long term, get some transparency in these marketplaces of the big packers. I really think we're going to see a lot of cow calf operators and small to medium sized feeders go out of business.”
Senator Tester isn’t the only one taking notice. On the other side of the aisle is Senator Steve Daines. He tells me the final Coronavirus Economic Recovery Package includes an additional $23.5 billion for agricultural assistance during the COVID-19 outbreak. So, what will happen after that?
Colter Brown, Ag Director for the Northern Ag Network says this could easily have a trickle down effect that impacts everyone at the grocery store.
"For the consumers if this continues and we can't get back on track quickly we could see some meat shortages at the grocery store again like we did early on in the pandemic and when that happens that's gonna cause the price to go up likely because there's more demand than there is available supply," said Brown.
In the meantime, ranchers like Walt and Cindy Schweitzer will continue going about their daily lives as calving season wraps up in the next few weeks.
As for what their future holds; only time, legislation, and transparency will tell.