Enterprising Wyo. cattlemen ready to start packing ’em in

POWELL, Wyo. – If the wishes of a coalition of cattlemen are granted, the state of Wyoming will soon have its first U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved meatpacking plant.

“We want to build a USDA plant that is certified to process organic and natural beef along with conventional beef,´ said Rod Morrison, director of Rocky Mountain Custom Cuts, the brand under which the organic and natural beef will be sold. “We have 700,000 head of cattle in this state and we don’t have a USDA plant.”

Wyoming cow-calf producers must now ship their live animals to Colorado, Nebraska, Montana and Iowa for processing.

The members of Farm to Fork Inc., the producer-owned processing and marketing group, are hoping to capture more of the profits involved in the meat industry by processing and marketing their own meat. The group currently has four dedicated members, including Morrison and others interested in building the plant, and interest from 40 to 60 other producers.

“This idea will not work unless there are enough people who want to be in the meat business. I am not interested in the guys who kind of want to participate, I want to build a connection between the producers and our customers,” Morrison said.

Most of the cattle in Wyoming are grass fed. This distinction makes the meat produced in the state attractive to consumers interested in purchasing natural or organic meats.

According to the Natural Food Merchandiser publication, total sales in the natural and organic food market are growing at a rate of 24 percent a year.

The packing plant will be built in Powell, located in the northwestern part of the state, and will employ between five and 15 workers who will process lamb, beef, pork and goat meat, averaging 20 to 25 animals per shift. The plant will span approximately 42,000 square feet and construction costs are estimated at $420,000.

Groundbreaking is expected to occur before the end of the year with the first processing set to start next summer.

Plans for the future

If the first plant is successful, the group is interested in building a plant in southeastern Wyoming and one near the state’s western border.

Morrison said he is hopeful natural and organic producers in Northern Colorado will be interested in processing at a future plant because “our Rocky Mountain flagpole will represent the whole area in the organic market.”

John Henn, agricultural marketing specialist with the Wyoming Business Council recognizes the growth in the organic market and wishes the group luck in bringing a plant to Wyoming.

“This is a great opportunity for our producers to get involved,” he said. “It is an expanding niche market and it is a great marketing opportunity for our cattle.”

Taylor Haynes, a Cheyenne-area producer of natural meats, has joined Morrison in Farm to Fork and said he’s excited about having an in-state location to ship his cattle. Haynes is currently shipping to eastern Nebraska and western Iowa to have his cattle processed.

“There is a small presence of a natural market in Wyoming but we are going to focus on selling our meat along the Front Range, and there is a tremendous market in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago,” he said. “Our consumers are more upscale and they know what to ask, and they want to make sure they have the best product.”

Steve Paisley, Wyoming animal science extension officer, is helping the group determine the marketability of the meat.

“Many of our producers have developed grass-fed units and have been given the opportunity to go organic. But there are no federally inspected plants in the state and the producers can’t market out of the state without the USDA approval,” he said. “So they sell the animal live and receive their payment prior to packaging whether or not it is sold as natural.”

Paisley said there are small processing plants scattered among the small towns in Wyoming. But without federal government approval, the meat must remain within the state.

He is optimistic about Morrison’s plans for the packing plant.

“I know he is looking to get a grant from the state to help pay for some of the expenses,” he said. “This plant would have a lot of benefit for the state and this is a good time to approach the state to get funds. Who knows how long a budget surplus will last?”

Kim Lock is the agriculture reporter for the Northern Colorado Business Report. To suggest column ideas contact her at (970) 221-5400 ext. 222 or at klock@ncbr.com.