Pandemic Highlights Need For More Meatpacking Capacity Statewide
Back in 2019, Valerie Murray's business, Murraymere Farms in Powell, was doing really well.
"We were able to send some of our beef over to a five star restaurant," said Murray. "And the demand became huge. And we were shipping approximately about 20 head of primals, just the primal cuts, a month over to Taiwan."
She has been in the business a long time, where she raises cattle and makes money by selling the meat. Even though she had a great buyer, she struggled to find a meatpacking facility in Wyoming that would be able to process her meat for her.
"We're talking about on average 42 head of beef needing to go to market, which capacity wise anywhere in Wyoming wasn't realistic," said Murray. "So, we've been going to the commodity plants, like your JBS and your Cargill for years and years and years, because we had nowhere local to go."
Then the pandemic hit and there was a backlog in those bigger facilities as workers got sick. The smaller Wyoming plants weren't any help either.
"All of a sudden, they said, 'We can't get anything in until March, April or May of next year'. And we're talking October, November of last year. So, we became one of the many people that was on the waiting list," said Murray.
Once the big national meat processing plants shut down, all kinds of producers flocked to regional facilities. But there wasn't enough processing capacity for the demand. One of those local facilities was Wyoming Legacy Meats.
Frank Schmidt, the co-owner of the meatpacking facility, said they were booked for a year in advance. Before the pandemic, they usually were booked a couple months ahead. He headed into March with 50 head of cattle capacity per week. As producers flocked to him, he wasn't able to handle the oversupply.
Schmidt, like Murray, has long known Wyoming didn't have adequate meatpacking facilities and almost no USDA certified ones that allow meat to be sold across state lines.
"One of the reasons that we started Wyoming Legacy Meats was because I was amazed that an agricultural state like Wyoming didn't have an ability to process beef and ship it across state lines," said Schmidt.
Since 2016, when he bought his plant he always wanted to expand. But he was starting to run out of money.
"I had asked or tried to see if there were any available systems for people trying to start businesses like this and state and we just had not."
As state officials watched what was happening, they became concerned.
So the state responded with the Meat Processing Expansion Grant Program, that took federal CARES Act funds and matched plants expenses up to $500,000 to help expand, upgrade or provide social distancing at meat processing plants.
The grant actually increased the number of USDA certified facilities in the state. Schmidt was able to buy several machines through the program, which increased his production by double.
Plus, Forward Cody, the Cody Economic Development organization received a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to create a new meat packing facility that should be able to process up to 300 head per week. That plant will be run by Wyoming Legacy Meats.
"That's still a very small plant," said Schmidt. "But it's big enough to supply beef for a region of all Northwest Wyoming and southern Montana. I mean we could cover a large area with that.
For Wyoming Business Council's agribusiness director Jill Tregemba, the pandemic shone a light on the weakness of the food supply chain in the state.
"That kind of sped up the interim talk on meat processing," said Tregemba. "And I think that's why you're seeing more bills hit the legislature this spring. As we look at the big picture of meat processing.
There are two bills going through the legislature right now. One would create a meatpacking program to help expand facilities throughout the state. And Wyoming Meat Packing Initiative numbered House Bill 54, which tells the Wyoming Business Council to look for ways to support producers and processors.
Tregemba said "regardless if 54 passes or not, it will be a priority of the Business Council."
Both Schmidt and Murray are cautiously optimistic that the pandemic has helped push the momentum forward for creating a cohesive and robust meatpacking network in the state.