By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
For all its beef, Wyoming has very few meat processing facilities.
But legislation is being considered at the state and national level aimed at helping Wyoming’s ranchers find new markets for their products.
According to Derek Grant with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, there are nine state-inspected meat plants in Wyoming, from Rock Springs to Jackson to Buffalo and Laramie – in all corners of the state.
Meanwhile, nine other meat processing companies in Wyoming are regulated by the Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA, but Grant says most of them are “custom” plants rather than large-scale processors that prepare meat for retail sale.
There’s only one company in the state – Wyoming Legacy Meats in Cody – that is a USDA-certified slaughter and process facility.
So state legislators during their general session considered several bills aimed at helping ranchers process their animals inside Wyoming.
House Bill 54, which has been approved by both the House and Senate and is awaiting action by Gov. Mark Gordon, calls for for the Wyoming Business Council to support the state’s meat processing industry with loans and grants.
House Bill 51, which is also awaiting Gordon’s signature, would authorize and fund a $20 million state program to expand and enhance Wyoming’s meat processing capabilities.
And Senate File 122 would create the Wyoming Agriculture Authority to promote agriculture in the state, particularly by encouraging the development and expansion of Wyoming meat processing facilities. This bill was awaiting its first full House review on Thursday.
In addition to helping Wyoming meat processing facilities, the bills are all aimed increasing the options available for ranchers looking to distribute their products.
Currently, about 80% of the nation’s meat processing plants are owned by four companies. Those companies have been accused of working together to keep prices paid ranchers for their meat low.
In addition, the closure of one major plant due to the coronavirus last year reduced the nation’s capacity for meat processing, putting a dent in demand for Wyoming meat.
Backers of the three bills said during committee hearings that by helping the meat processing industry in Wyoming, ranchers in the state would have other markets for their products.
But being able to process meat within the state’s borders is just one step. Right now, only facilities inspected by the USDA can sell their products outside Wyoming.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney is working on a bill to change that.
The bill, known as the Expanding Markets for State-Inspected Meat Processors Act of 2021, would open the doors for local producers to export Wyoming products to additional markets by allowing meat products inspected by state meat and poultry inspection programs to be sold across state lines.
Right now, Wyoming Legacy Meats, which was founded in 2016, is the only USDA-certified slaughter and processing facility in the state — the first since the 1970s. And that company recently received a $2.2 million dollar grant to expand its ability to slaughter and process meat.
Dr. Frank Schmidt, who with his wife Caety started the business to process their own cattle from the Double Doc Ranch, was moved to found the plant so they could control the product from, in their words, “conception to consumption.”
Cheney’s bill would create dozens of new jobs at Wyoming Legacy Meats alone, according to James Klessens with the economic development organization Forward Cody.
“Meat packing isn’t the sexiest or the prettiest project out there – but most of us still eat meat, and so there’s a real need for it,” Klessens said.