DOUGLAS — The meat cases at Douglas Grocery and Safeway are a little less bare in the days following the more stringent pandemic restrictions, but early on meat was in short supply.
Unless you’re lucky enough to be standing there as the latest shipment arrives, you may have found yourself out of luck or been shell-shocked at the price.
That is, IF the shipment arrived, and if the delivery wasn’t shorted. Grocers say they’re doing everything they can to assure customers quality meats and fair prices, but the prices they’re paying for the meats are increasing fast and digging deeply into their already slim margins – because they can’t price their products high enough to recoup the quickly escalating wholesale prices set by packers.
That same worry, though, has created a change for some. The situation at retail stores, coupled with the lower prices which ranchers are getting for their cattle and other livestock, has spurred tremendous interest in ranch-to-table operations around Converse County, Wyoming and the country.
Mitch Falkenburg, his wife Lindsay, and Mitch’s parents, Garret and Shelly Falkenburg, run about 100 head of purebred angus on their Rolling Pin Ranches outside of Douglas.
Mitch has been selling beef directly to consumers for 15 years through Falkenburg’s Finest.
“We sell about 80 animals on a normal year. This year, due to COVID, we’re already at 150. We’re hoping to get north of 200 this year. That’s our goal,” he said.
When he started out in 2005, the soon-to-be-college student fed-up four animals and sold them to friends in Douglas and Casper. After college, he slowly increased sales mostly by word-of-mouth.
Then 2020 came.
The impact of coronavirus on the beef market has surprised him in an unexpected way.
“I’d never have said in a million years this would have affected the beef industry the way it has. You could kind of see it coming on the horizon, that it’d have affects, but I was under the impression it would be negative ones,” he said.
And for some, it will be negative.
Most cattle producers who sell their cattle in the fall or who have yearling cattle they sell in the summer or early fall are known as “price takers,” he said.
“A price-taker means whatever the market is willing to offer when you want to market them, that’s what the market is going to give you for them, instead of being a price-setter. Consequently, by being a price-taker, it really paints you into an economic corner in the sense that some years you make money and some years you’re going to lose your (butt).
“Unfortunately, this is one of those years.”
Falkenburg thought for sure this year would be a huge economic blow to his business.
“I thought people were going to lose their jobs, money was going to be tight and there wasn’t going to be a snowball’s chance people were going to want to buy beef direct. It’s a substantial amount of money all at once. I felt I was going to take a hit, but it’s done just the exact opposite,” he explained.
Falkenburg recalled the swine and bird flu seasons in 2014-2015. From an economic standpoint when one protein source becomes too expensive, people substitute a different protein.
“In that particular year pigs and chickens were scarce. Consequently, everybody was turning to beef, as it was the most accessible protein to folks. The demand was driven through the roof,” he said. “That year, yearling cattle were generating close to $2,000 per animal for the producer. That wasn’t net profit but a gross receipt for them.”
The lack of less expensive proteins – chicken and pork – drove people to buy more beef, which in turn drove up prices.
That was good for ranchers.
“At that time before that bubble started, folks were seeing $1.99 per pound for hamburger, it was not uncommon. The bubble grew due to not having any other protein sources. The bubble finally broke when the pigs and chickens came back onboard and people were able to substitute again. From a grocery store standpoint (at that time) you went from $1.99/pound hamburger to $3.99 hamburger. When the bubble finally busted, $3.99 stuck.
“We as consumers have seen that ever since. It’s kind of held in that realm for general, regular hamburger, nothing special about it. Now with this whole coronavirus thing and this bottlenecking we’re seeing with processing plants, we’re seeing the same thing happen again. We’ve gone from $3.99 hamburger to $6.99 hamburger.”
The jump in price and demand for hamburger – one of the least expensive protein options at a grocery store – have him concerned.
“I’ve had some serious conversations with my customers and people who are calling, wanting to learn about where their food comes from. I wonder if when the bubble breaks finally and we get back to some normalcy again, are we going to see the bubble break as a consumer? Are we going to go back to $3.99 hamburger Or is $6.99 (a pound) hamburger the new normal?”
Falkenburg contends consumers may just have to take a seriously harder look at where their food is coming from and what exactly is going into producing it.
“From a domestic standpoint, it’s going to be easy for folks to find ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ products, but it’s a matter of going back to the way things used to be, in the sense that it was very notable and common to be purchasing stuff from your neighbors. Not necessarily from the person across the fence from you, but maybe someone on your block owns the auto parts store you were going in and were a patron.
“I truly wonder if this isn’t going to be the start of how we get back to not having 90 percent of what’s in our houses made in China? Instead we go back to supporting ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ businesses again. We need to get out of this centralized mindset we’ve got and get back to being more local-focused,” he said.
He’s also curious if the “Big Four” major packers who produce the majority of the meat in the United States have cut off their noses to spite their faces by manipulating the beef industry and high prices during the pandemic.
Perhaps consumers’ mindsets are, in fact, changing, he mused.
Will our new normal consist of becoming more self-sufficient, depending on our neighbors more for our everyday food supply? Will we learn to trade and barter for our necessities?
“I wonder if that’s not where we’re going to in this whole thing, that it’s going to be commonplace to have a meat shop or a year-round produce stand of some kind that’s supporting each town individually, so that when things like this arise, it’s not such a pinch on the United States as a whole. Maybe that’s some of the ramifications that are going to happen from this thing.”
For Falkenburg’s Finest, the pandemic has done just that. He’s getting calls almost every day from new customers looking to buy beef locally. And he’s not alone.
Shonda Boyd is a self-taught economist who professes a love for algorithms – she’s also a born and raised Wyoming woman who started a Facebook group for farmers and ranchers to get in direct touch with America’s consumers: The United States Meat and Produce Market.
The group’s popularity blew up on the internet in seven short days.
Boyd grew up on a ranch near Slater. She’s married to Tyler Boyd, and they live on a hay farm with their seven children outside of Wheatland.
“We had no idea the COVID crash would be this great or give us so many windows of opportunity to invest. I also know what was great for me as an investor was going to be brutal for many in America who were not expecting it.
“One of the most important things to learn about an economic crash is knowing the signs one is about to happen. The five aspects of an economy that will crash (are) energy, jobs, money (the federal reserve), food, then the land,” she said.
She said when she saw “we were at the unemployment aspect of the crash, I panicked. I had to help make sure that my county got fed and the producers had somewhere to go with their animals.”
It was in that moment inspiration hit.
On April 17, she started her Facebook group, Platte County Meat and Produce Market.
The demand for information on local producers (both ranchers and farmers) was so great, she said, by the third day she renamed it to Wyoming Meat and Produce Market.
As consumers and producers connected in even greater numbers, she changed the name again, this time to 5 State Meat and Produce Market.
Finally, on the seventh day, she knew she needed something which encompassed all 50 states and would be permanent: The United States Meat and Produce Market.
The group has a producer map where ranchers and farmers can sign themselves up and pin their location, contact information and what they are selling.
On June 8, the group had a whopping 18,600 members and more than 500 producers on the map – and it’s been growing daily ever since.
“It’s been a bigger success than we could’ve imagined. The best part of this whole idea is it has been done for free. We did it for the greater good of America. Pure, deep-rooted love for America and its people is what made this (connection) happen,” she said.
It was 6:45 a.m. The cacophony of bawling calves and bellowing cows was a symphony of chaotic sound to the cowboys’ and cowgirls’ ears as they rode down the mountain on horseback under a soft morning sun.
The animals’ hooves kicked up clouds of fine, red dust as the riders gathered Alvie and Billie Ann Manning’s herd of several hundred cow/ calf pairs, guiding them toward the corrals where the Manning’s annual branding was set to take place June 3.
The Manning Ranch straddles Converse and Niobrara Counties and the branding is always on June 3, Alvie said emphatically. An invitation to a Wyoming branding isn’t one to be taken lightly.
Once the cow/calf pairs were separated, the real action started in the corral. Calves were roped by riders on horseback, then pulled in front of teams of ranchers, friends and volunteers who castrated bulls, vaccinated calves and pressed sizzling hot branding irons into their rumps, all as if they were practiced ahead of time.
The synchronicity of a branding is impressive whether you’re a first timer or an old hand at it.
“It’s just what we do,” Alvie said, echoing Neil Forgey’s earlier words. Forgey, a neighboring rancher, helped the Manning family during their branding, just as Alvie helped him with his.
It’s how things are done all over Wyoming. It’s normal.