Montana ranchers turn to local butchers this year more than ever

GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Whether it was switching to curbside service or cutting back on operation hours, in some sort of way this year businesses have been forced to change their day-to-day operations, especially in the Ag industry.

After the pandemic cut out a lot of resources many ranchers have been forced to turn to local meat processors just to keep business going.

For some butchers, going the local route was always the plan from the beginning.

"We’ve been very intentional about being local. It’s an investment in the community. We know that if you want to have good restaurants, good businesses, good ranchers, you have to support those people locally," said Drew Hicks, owner of Central Avenue Meats.

But Central Avenue Meats wasn't the only new business with this idea. Kesler Martin, out of Conrad, opened up Coulee Cuts this January, and even though many of their calves get shipped to feed yards out of state he still processes beef for his own community.

"You know we raise some of the best beef in the world in Montana. There’s no reason every Montanan shouldn’t have a chance to have it,” said Martin.

Even though the two businesses chose to connect locally, some ranchers decided to go another route.

Brett DeBruycker out of Dutton has been a rancher his whole life and he chooses to auction off his Charolais bulls all across the nation.

While some parts of the business are doing well, more than a year into this pandemic he says there’s still a major problem happening across the country when it comes to processing meat. 

Walter Schweitzer, president of Montana Farmers Union, said in the mid 70’s Montana was processing roughly 70 percent of its meat, but today that number has dropped to 10 percent.

"Due to the total packers having total control of the industry and USDA requiring USDA facilities to export meat across state lines, you know that's been a problem for a long time and covid has brought that to the forefront," said Debruycker.

The benefit of going through those packers doesn’t necessarily come to the rancher but more so in cost to you at the grocery store. However, ranchers say local beef is the best beef.

“Yeah, I think it's pretty important for people to know where it came from and if they want it they should be able to get it," said Martin.

Could this local connection between ranchers and meat processors be something we continue to see in the future?

“It seems like a win-win for us, and I would encourage the people in those regions to eat the stuff that's raised locally there too," said Hicks.

"I think they are. I think the local processors are going to come back. I think you'll see a few more USDA plants pop up in the next few years," said Martin.

"I think it would be very important and very beneficial for Montana producers," said DeBruycker.

To keep that future going Montana Farmers Union has partnered with Montana State-Northern to create and launch a meat-packing program teaching students about meat processing, butchering, and food safety.

The goal is to keep Montana family ranchers and local beef going strong for generations to come.

"Getting people in touch to where their food comes from is going to become more important in the future. So, there's an opportunity as I’m going to say. It’s happening in populated states already, programs like this are already happening. It’s going to give us an opportunity to prepare people to work in that industry," said Dave Krueger, dean of the college of technical sciences.

Montana may see more and more local butchers popping up all over the treasure state as more and more people look to them to put good quality food on their table.

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