Dinner in Whitehall?

Could there be a meat processing plant in Whitehall? Definitely. Should there be? That’s another question.

Producers and Jefferson County officials gathered Nov. 4 at Whitehall’s Community Center to further explore the possibility of establishing a processing facility. The meeting, hosted by the MSU Madison-Jefferson Extension Service, surfaced two insights: The potential upside for a new plant is significant. And the challenges are daunting.

The event, attended by 45 producers and others and featuring a panel of experts from across the meat industry, was the second gathering prompted by County Commissioner Leonard Wortman’s inquiry about the feasibility of a processing plant. At an introductory gathering on September 16, community members explored the possibility of a cooperative ownership model.

Other meetings likely will follow as the group gathers and processes intelligence. “We’re not here to make a decision to open tomorrow,” Eric Seidensticker, director of Headwaters RCD’s Food & Agricultural Development Center, told participants. “We’re doing reconnaissance. We’re taking these macro issues and going through a series of discussions to narrow it down.”

One of those issues concerns potential demand for processed beef. On that front, the outlook seems...bullish. “I don’t think there’s any limit to what you can sell,” said Boe Robbie, sales director for the Montana Cattle Connexion, a livestock marketing company. Although domestic per capita consumption of beef has declined steadily over the last four decades, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, exports, especially to Asia, have filled the gap.

That foreign interest appears to be heightening – especially, speakers at the Whitehall meeting noted, for beef from Montana. Meanwhile, they said, the domestic beef market may be bifurcating – with demand and prices declining for lower-quality products but increasing for meats perceived as high-end.   

“I compare it to beer,” said Brian Obert, executive director of the Montana Business Assistance Connection, citing the emergence of locally produced craft brews that fetch premium prices. “There is a product difference, and there is a taste difference. We’re at a point [with Montana-raised beef] where we could take advantage of that.”

Or, as Robbie put it: “Montana sells itself. You say you’re from Montana and everyone lights up. They imagine the Boulder Valley, the snow on the peaks, the cowboys on their horses. It’s pretty obvious branding advantage.”

And Montana faces a shortage of meat processing capacity: Small customers endure waits of six months to a year to get their animals butchered. “There’s a definite need for more processors,” said Brent Reichman, owner of Milligan Canyon Meats, a processor in Cardwell. “We turn away more than what we’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you do a good job or a bad job, you’re booked up.” Whitehall’s central location, in the heart of ranching country and at the junction of two interstate highways, could be an advantage. “In Whitehall, you’re in the hot spot,” observed Jerry Stroot, owner of Superior Meats, another small processor.

But there are good reasons more processing plants haven’t emerged. For one thing, skilled meat cutters are hard to come by: Reichman and Stroot both said their struggles to fill those critical jobs have limited their own ability to expand. There’s the cost of wastewater treatment, and of the disposal of rendering and hides.

Just as important, an efficient meat processing business demands continuous operation. “You want to keep your people busy all the time. You can’t have a plant that’s running two shifts hard and then shuts down from three months waiting to come in.” That requires coordination with beef producers to ensure a steady flow of animals, as well as integration with other actors in the supply chain: corn growers, for example, on the front end, as well as dog food manufacturers on the other.

Kaleena Miller, Madison-Jefferson County Extension’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, said after the meeting that there is no concrete timeline for deciding on a facility. With Headwaters’ help, the county is pursuing grant funding for a feasibility study that would more formally investigate potential economics and logistics. But “it’s very loose right now,” Miller said. “The driving force will the producers and area stakeholders.”

Said Wortman: “We’ll see where this thing goes. I hope it has legs.”

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