Choosing local and regenerative meat options is a way for those who choose to eat meat to do so as sustainably as possible, but in the US, where 75 percent of beef is processed by four companies (JBS, Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef Packing Co), buying local can be difficult. Consumers aren’t the only ones frustrated by a lack of options, ranchers across the country are struggling to make ends meet as these huge meatpacking corporations offer less and less to ranchers per cow.
Fed up with these conditions, some ranchers, like Oklahoma-based Damon Watson, are taking matters into their own hands. Watson employs 16 people to run a small meat processing plant for his ranch and several others in the region. All their beef is sourced locally and sold directly to consumers from a small storefront. While large meatpackers process up to 35,000 cattle a week, Watson’s plant processes about 35. The meat is higher quality, fresher, and all profits are recycled into the local economy.
Watson isn’t the only rancher operating independently. His plant is one of 19 smaller independent operations launched in the last year in Oklahoma. On top of funneling more profits directly back to ranchers, these small plants are also more resilient to industry slowdowns created by the pandemic. With just over a dozen employees, there is a smaller chance of mass Covid-19 outbreaks and improved working conditions for employees.
Lawmakers and the current administration are working to increase regulations for the meatpacking industry. As ranchers make less money and consumers pay more for meat, large meatpacking companies are the middlemen taking home massive profits. Bipartisan lawmakers are working to introduce bills that would increase regulations including mandating country-of-origin labels for meat products, creating price transparency, and introducing investigators focused on identifying anticompetitive conduct and enforcing meatpacking regulations.
Walter Schweitzer, the president of the Montana Farmers Union, is also a cattle rancher now working with a small local plant. He emphasizes that the small, local meat processing movement is encouraging, but will need infrastructure support to thrive. He tells NBC, “We have to train more butchers, inspectors, and entrepreneurs to get our local meat processing industry up and running again.” He is optimistic that the current administration is finally taking action on the issue of meatpacking monopolies. Policies like the Federal Trade Commission’s announcement that it would protect farmers’ rights to repair their own machinery are a step in the right direction.