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Magagna: U.S. Needs Investigation Now on Price Gouging by Meat Packers

in Agriculture/Coronavirus/News
4312

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An investigation into price gouging by major meat packers is a welcome action for Wyoming beef producers, Jim Magagna, Exeuctive Vice President of the Wyoming Stockgrowers, said on Friday.

Magagna, appearing on Town Square Media’s “Economy Town Hall” broadcast on the company’s Wyoming radio stations, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s formal investigation on pricing practices in the meat industry is necessary.

He said the problem is that there are thousands of beef producers in America but there are only four major meat packers and those meat packers get to control the price of beef for consumers.

“It is hard not to see that they are making huge return on their investment buying live cattle and then marketing box beef,” Magagna said. “And that price of that box beef has gone up very significantly.”

How big is the disparity?

Lex Madden, from the Torrington Livestock Markets, told the Casper Star Tribune that meat packers make between $500 to $600 per head of cattle while producers earn $105 to $100.

“It’s just frustrating how greedy and ruthless the packers are,” Madden told the newspaper. “They’re smart business people but they’re so ruthless and greedy that they do not care about the American rancher, farmer or producer.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in early April it would look into the difference between the prices received by meat packers for beef and what is paid ranchers.

In addition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s investigation, Magagna said the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association has reached out to President Trump and Attorney General William Barr to conduct an investigation.

“We’ve asked for a full investigation because we need to determine if laws are being broken,” he said.

“Beyond that, this is a wake-up call for our industry. We face some fundamental structural problems,” he said.

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Legislators Call For Investigation of Meat Processors For Monopolistic Practices

in Agriculture/Coronavirus/News
Cows
3839

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Two Wyoming legislators joined Wyoming’s congressional delegation in calling for investigations into the four major beef processors in the United States, as the companies continue to make record profits during the coronavirus pandemic.

While retail beef prices have surged due to consumers hoarding beef, prices paid ranchers for cattle continue to stay low. State Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, noted that cattle prices are some of the lowest he’s seen in 40 years of ranching.

“This as bad as it’s ever been,” Driskill said. “We’re really in a segment where people are going to see mass closures in the ag industry.”

Driskill and his Wyoming House of Representatives colleague Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, both criticized the four major meat packing companies, Tyson, Smithfield, JBS and Cargill, for creating a monopoly that hurts ranches and small cattle producers.

Driskill recommended the public call for an investigation into these companies and enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act, which regulates interstate and foreign commerce in livestock, dairy, poultry and related products.

The simple step of shopping locally for meat would also be of major help, the senator added.

“The people who produce beef and the consumers are both losing out right now with this monopoly,” Driskill said. “People need to come out and say ‘If you’re going to break the ranchers, at least give us cheap food.'”

On the other hand, Lindholm blamed the companies’ misuse of the Federal Meat Inspection Act as one of the problems behind rising beef prices for consumers, but not ranchers. He believes the four major meat processing companies are using the act to push out competitors, allowing for them to process more than 80% beef in the country.

Lindholm suggested a complete repeal of the act in favor of letting the states decide how to regulate meat processing. He agreed with Driskill about buying meat locally as a solution.

“Major corporations are going to make the American West disappear,” he said. “Everyone loves seeing the green landscapes and wide open spaces out here, but the reason we have that is because of agriculture. We have to find suitable ways to promote local agriculture.”

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney signed on to a bipartisan letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requesting it provide immediate assistance to cattle producers.

The letter asked USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to take advantage of the resources provided in the recently-enacted Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stabilization (CARES) Act, including the replenishment of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) and additional emergency funding. This would facilitate the stabilization of farm and ranch income for producers who are facing market volatility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout, the letter said.

“The COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the need for domestic food security,” the members of Congress wrote. “All farmers and ranchers are vital to our country’s ability to keep food on the table in a future pandemic or related crisis, and many producers, including young producers, are often highly leveraged and cannot fall back on years of equity in a time of crisis. As such, we urge you to quickly deliver relief to producers as we work to lessen the economic impact of this pandemic.”

Both Driskill and Lindholm praised members of the delegation for calling on the USDA, but Driskill also admitted that the federal help will come with a bit of a stigma.

“We don’t want government payments,” he said. “We just want the ability to compete in a fair marketplace. This isn’t about getting rich. We just want to get a fair share of the profitability.”

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Sugar Beet Producers Feel Strain Of Bad Weather, Costs

in Agriculture/News
Sugar beets
3112

By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

They create the stuff of magic, equated with deliciousness. And they could make or break a family business.

Sugar beets are a mainstay crop in Wyoming. But in northern Wyoming, where the growing conditions are optimal, farmers who grow sugar beets are facing a hardship like they’ve not seen in generations.

Between a hard frost last fall that left sugar beets frozen in the ground and mounting costs for renovations in other factories in the Western Sugar cooperative, sugar beet growers in the Bighorn Basin are facing a grim financial future. 

That’s according to Kurt Dobbs, the agronomist and field representative for the Bighorn Co-op in the northern half of the Bighorn Basin.

“The farmers around this area, they grow really good beets and are very good at yield,” he pointed out. “But it’s been three years in a row that they haven’t received the money that they need to receive for their crop.”

The growers in the Bighorn Basin are part of the Western Sugar Cooperative, which has factories in Lovell, Billings, Montana, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Fort Morgan, Colorado. 

The Lovell producers farm over 16,000 acres of beets collectively, according to Casey Crosby, a fourth-generation sugar beet grower in Cowley. 

Crosby, who also has a masters degree in business, said the economic hit of crop losses to the local communities could exceed $14 million. 

“It’s a challenging time in agriculture in general, but right now, with the issues we’ve had with our co-op, and then the weather on top of that, it’s crippled a lot of farmers,” he said.

Those issues include bad weather in two of the last three years. In between, when the harvest should have yielded a payment, Crosby said the profit went to offset costs in other areas of the Western Sugar Cooperative.

Rodney Perry, the Denver-based CEO of Western Sugar, said that the organization is working with the USDA on a disaster relief program that may provide area farmers with some much-needed assistance. 

Perry noted the program is similar to the federal government’s WHIP assistance fund (Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus), which provides disaster payments to offset losses from hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, typhoons, volcanic activity, snowstorms and wildfire. 

Crosby said the assistance could mean the difference in whether or not many growers will be able to farm next year.

Crosby is one of the lucky ones – of the 4,000 acres that he farms with another local grower, only 700 of those acres are planted in sugar beets. But as Dobbs pointed out, there are many other farmers whose livelihoods depend on the sugar beet crop.

“The farmers have to get paid for their sugar beets and they haven’t been,” Dobbs said. “So if that continues, you will see farmers going bankrupt.”

Wyoming Beef: Big Marketing Opportunities with Farm-to-Table Movement

in Agriculture/News
2852

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Cattle outnumber people nearly two-to-one in Wyoming, but buying beef identified as locally raised can be a challenge, a Wyoming Stock Growers Association spokesperson said.

“These animals often get shipped out as calves, and they might even come back as yearlings, but they lose their identity as Wyoming beef,” said Jim Magagna, the Stock Growers Association’s executive vice president. “You may have eaten a lot of them throughout your life, but you’d never know it.”

A trickle-down affect of the farm-to-table trend is an American curiosity about where food comes from and a desire to consume locally produced vittles. This curiosity is increasing the demand for both small and large meat processors in Wyoming, Magagna said.

“I don’t know that (beef processing) was ever less common,” he said. “We’ve always had a good array of small processors throughout the state. But we’ve never really had processing on a level where we were providing volume of product.”

That could soon change.

Niche demand

Up until two years ago, Magagna said Wyoming didn’t have any beef processors inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture. 

State-inspected facilities can ship products throughout Wyoming, but not across state lines. USDA-inspected facilities can ship their products anywhere within the U.S. and internationally.

Nowadays, the state is home to two USDA-approved facilities, another is transitioning from state-inspected to USDA-inspected and two more are in the construction phase, said Ron Gullberg, the Wyoming Business Council business development director.

“In 2018, the ag marketing bill — Senate File No. 108 — looked at the data saying Wyoming beef is a dominant industry, but it’s not a value-added industry,” Gullberg said. “It’s a commodity industry. So, we’re looking at how we can work to develop strategies to bolster processing in Wyoming.”

Last summer, the Business Council initiated a beef study that could provide beef producers and processors information essential to capitalizing on Wyoming branded beef products, he said.

“We’re asking the question, ‘How big can we go to fill a niche demand for Wyoming beef?’” Gullberg said. “(The study) has  three parts: Market opportunities,  opportunities for offal or byproducts of the processing, and workforce.”

The study is slated to be completed within a few weeks, but not everyone is waiting for the results.

Homefront processing

Born and raised in northeast Wyoming, Kelsey Christiansen grew up around meat processing.

“When I was young, my dad and grandfather ran a small butcher shop,” Christiansen said. “That caught my interest, then in college, I got a job working at the meat lab at the University of Wyoming. That really pulled it all together for me.”

With 15 years of experience in meat processing, Christiansen decided to open his own USDA-inspected meat processing plant — the 307 Meat Company in Laramie.

“If we’re one of the leading cattle-producing states in the nation, then we should be able to eat our own meat,” he said. “Most all the cattle leave the state to be harvested. Hopefully, we’re making a move to change that.”

The plant is not operational yet, but Christiansen said he plans to open its doors this spring. 

“My main focus of my business plan is to be a service company and a private label company,” he explained. “Whether you have a 100 head of cattle or 15, you can bring them to us, and we’ll process them and put your labels on them exactly how you want.” 

While most ranchers send their cattle out-of-state to large-scale processors, because shipping in bulk is more economical, Christiansen said there is a growing interest in small-scale operations.

“There is a massive shortage in small meat processors to do work for the little man,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for Wyoming and the beef industry as a whole. I think you’re going to see a change in dynamic across the state with a couple more processors coming on line in the near future.”

Farm Bureau Provides Tips for Tackling Springtime Ag Challenges

in Agriculture/News
2819

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Spring is fraught with dangers for Wyoming’s agriculture producers, but networking and planning can help farmers and ranchers mitigate the worst mother nature has to offer, a Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation spokesperson said.

“The biggest challenge come spring is the weather,” said Brett Moline, the Farm Bureau public affairs director. “You have to be prepared for anything, because you’ll just never know what you’ll have year to year.”

As a reminder for old hands and a guide for the new ranchers, Moline provided a list of Wyoming ag producers biggest springtime hurdles and tips on how to clear them.

Problem: Calving in a Storm

For many ranchers, Moline said spring is a time of new life and the frailty it presents.

“Spring is the typical birthing season,” he explained. “But big storms and high winds can be a pretty big problem.”

Upon exiting the womb, newborns can struggle to keep their body temperatures up if the animals don’t have proper wind breaks and shelter.

“When they get wet, they can’t get dried off and warmed up,” Moline said. “They come out of something that’s 95 to 100 degrees to something that’s 10 degrees — that’s pretty shocking, and many don’t recover.”

Solution: Break the wind

Out on the range, shelter can come in several sizes and shapes from dense shrubbery to sizable structures.

“Most ranchers will run their first calf heifers through a barn,” Moline said. “It may not be heated, but it’s out of the wind and that’s half the battle sometimes.”

In areas with dense shrubbery and tree coverage, ranchers can use the landscape to protect the young, but not all pastures are created equal.  

“On the high plains around Laramie County, ranchers don’t have a lot of natural shelter,” Moline explained. “People will build wind breaks to make sure the calves have the best chance.”

Alternatively, some producers push their calving season back until around July to avoid the snow season altogether, he said.

Problem: Predators

Coyotes and wolves looking for a meal after a long winter can pose a significant threat to shepherds with lambing sheep, and in some cases, cattle as well.

“Predation will always be a problem,” Moline said. “I don’t think there is a solution that eliminates predation, but that’s not the goal. Ranchers just want to keep their predation loss down enough to allow them to still be economically sustainable.”

Coyotes cause real problems for sheep herds, especially during the lambing season. Cattle, on the other hand, present more of a problem to themselves when predators are on the prowl.

“I had a rancher tell me he didn’t think he’d ever lost a calf to a coyote,” Moline said. “But, he lost several to their mothers stepping on them when trying to defend against coyotes.”

Solution: Work with Local and State Agencies

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Department of Agriculture, and county predator boards are excellent resources for dealing with predation, Moline said.

“Some county predator boards will locate the coyotes’ territory, fly over and take out some coyotes before birthing season,” he said. “For sheepmen, guard dogs are a good measure.”

Sheep dogs raised with the herd can reduce attrition caused by predation.

For cattle, the window of vulnerability is relatively small.

“Once a calf gets a few days old, a coyote isn’t going to be too much of a problem,” Moline said. “The trick is making sure they are safe those first few days.”ttps://wyagric

Problem: Balancing the Water Supply

Spring is planting season, and too much precipitation can be just as harmful as too little, Moline explained.

“It’s got to be dry enough to get a tractor in there, but you don’t want it too dry — it’s all about that balance,” he said. “If your planting is delayed, your harvest is going to be delayed, then you start worrying about snow again.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture determined too much precipitation was the cause of a recent irrigation tunnel collapse in Goshen County, which cut water off to hundreds of farmers on thousands of acres in Wyoming and Nebraska.

Solution: Preparation and Networking

Keeping an eye on the snowpack report can help producers predict how much irrigation they’ll need, Moline said.

“Listening to the weather report is big for ag producers,” he said. “They need to figure out what works best for them. But I think that’s what makes producers such a unique community. Ranchers and farmers always look at a problem and figure out how to adapt.”

For too much water, Moline said the best a farmer can do is wait it out and hope for the sun to shine.

For too little, planning ahead and adjusting crops to suit the availability of irrigation could prevent a lot of heartache, he said.

“Work with your neighbors — networking is key,” Moline said. “Together, you can make a plan to address each situation as it comes.”

Meatless Options Having Little Impact on Wyoming Beef Producers

in Agriculture/Food/News
2736

By Tim Mandese
Cowboy State Daily

Despite a growing trend toward meatless meal options, Wyoming’s beef producers are not seeing much of a decline in the demand for their product.

Plant-based meat substitutes are popping up in supermarkets and restaurants across the country. Burger King sells its Impossible Whopper, Qdoba has an Impossible fajita and burrito. Even Dunkin’ Donuts is selling a plant-based patty as a sausage substitute on its breakfast menu.

Although plant-based meat substitutes are more available than ever, their presence in the market has not dampened the demand for Wyoming beef, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

“I think it’s gotten a huge amount of media attention because it’s something new,” Magagna said. “The media attention far exceeds what it’s gotten in the meat case and grocery stores or food establishments. At this point in time, the percentage of the market they’ve taken is so very small that we certainly haven’t felt an economic impact, but that could come if this continues to grow.”

WSGA figures show plant-based foods make up a little more than 1 percent of the beef market.

“The hype would lead you to believe it’s taking over the country and I dont see any evidence of that,” Magagna said.

The majority of current media attention is centered around meatless products from a company called Impossible Foods, founded in 2011 by Dr. Patrick O. Brown.

Impossible Foods did not respond to an emailed request for an interview. However, the company’s website said its mission is to end the use of animals to make food. The company’s goal is to make convincing meat, dairy, and fish from plants-based sources.

In 2016, Impossible Foods launched its first product, the Impossible Burger, a substitute meat patty. Today, it’s served in 15,000 restaurants world wide.

According to the company’s website, the patty used in Burger King’s Impossible Whopper is made of the following ingredients:
•Water

•Soy-protein concentrate
•Coconut oil

•Sunflower oil

•Natural flavors.

Impossible “meat” also contains 2% or less of:
•Potato protein
•Methylcellulose
•Yeast extract

•Cultured dextrose
•Food starch, modified

•Soy leghemoglobin (Heme)
•Salt
•Soy-protein isolate
•Mixed tocopherols (vitamin E)
•Zinc gluconate
•Thiamine hydrochloride (Vitamin B1)
•Sodium ascorbate (vitamin C)
•Niacin
•Pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6)
•Riboflavin (vitamin B2)

•Vitamin B12.

According to ImpossibleFoods.com, its patty is made mostly of soy protein derived from soybeans.

Another soy ingredient, and the one said to be responsible for the meat-like taste, is soy leghemoglobin.

“Soy leghemoglobin is short for legume hemoglobin — the hemoglobin found in soy, a leguminous plant” said the ImpossibleFoods.com website. “Leghemoglobin is a protein found in plants that carries heme, an iron-containing molecule that is essential for life. Heme is found in every living being — both plants and animals.”

Given the list of ingredients found in the meatless patties, the Wyoming Stock Growers Association is working with legislators to set labeling standards for plant-based products.

“Our big concern and our focus the last couple of years is on how these products are advertised,” Magagna said. “If they are advertised for what they are and it’s fair competition, it’s a free marketplace, as long as it doesn’t lead people to think they are eating real meat when they are eating plant-based products.

“We’ve worked on and are still working on legislation at the national level and we passed a bill here in Wyoming last year in our legislative session, that identifies how those products have to be labeled,” he added.

The introduction of a meat alternative has helped the beef industry better understand what it must do to compete in changing markets, Magagna said.

“There’s plenty of evidence out there that red meat is an important part and a healthy part of a balanced diet,” Magagna said “If it’s done anything, in one way it’s helped us, because it’s inspired us to better recognize the need to market our product and to focus on marketing the healthy attributes of our product”

Wyoming Ag Year in Review: Crops Hit Hard in 2019, but There Was a Silver Lining

in Agriculture/News
2712

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Agricultural producers were hit hard by weather across Wyoming throughout 2019, but on the upside, government agencies rose to the occasion on many fronts, a Wyoming Department of Agriculture spokesperson said. 

Stacia Berry, Department of Ag deputy director, said 2019 was a challenging year for farmers and ranchers alike, but Wyoming came out on top by the end. 

Listed below, Berry highlighted major problems producers faced in 2019 and notable boons for the industry from the department’s point of view.

High: Trade momentum

In December, the U.S. House approved the United Sates-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), an update to the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement.

“There’s a lot of positive momentum in the trade area,” Berry said. “From an agriculture perspective, USMCA is something we’re excited to see moving forward.” 

While the agreement is heavily focused on the automotive industry, Berry said it could also provide several benefits to ag producers who trade internationally.

“Mexico and Canada are two of the top three markets for ag goods exported from the U.S.,” she said.

The nation is also in the first phase of trade negotiations with China and opening additional market access in Japan.

“Those three trade deals are going to provide more opportunities for export for agriculture in general, but also more opportunities for (Wyoming) producers,” Berry said.

The Wyoming Business Council is getting ahead of the trade deals with a Wyoming beef industry study that could help producers understand how best to capitalize on foreign markets, said Ron Gullberg, the Business Council business development director.

“Even though there’s trade deals being cut, it’s not like the flood gates open, and we’re ready to ship a bunch of beef,” Gullberg said. “We’ve got to work on the supply and logistics, too.”

High: Governor’s initiatives

The ag industry received significant support from the state’s executive branch in 2019, Berry said. 

“Gov. Mark Gordon has a great focus on agriculture in land health, soil quality and his focus on invasive species,” she said. “As well, (Wyoming’s) First Lady (Jennie Gordon) released big news last year with a hunger initiative for children around the state.”

In October, Gov. Mark Gordon launched an initiative to slow the spread of invasive plant species across Wyoming.

Wyoming’s agricultural lands could experience significant impacts as a result of terrestrial invasive species, Berry said.

The initiative is slated to include both technical and policy teams.

To address food insecurity, Jennie Gordon founded the Wyoming Hunger Initiative last year. 

“As agriculture is in the food production and safety businesses, they have great initiatives that work hand-in-hand with the work that is being done,” Berry said. 

Working together, ag initiatives, non-profit organizations and Jennie Gordon’s initiative could significantly reduce the number of people in Wyoming who spend their days wondering where the next meal will come from, she added. 

High: Leadership positions

Department of Agriculture Director Doug Miyamoto was honored with high-level national appointments that could allow Wyoming to play an integral role in future policy decisions, Berry said.

“We are strategically positioned right now for Director Miyamoto to serve as the president of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA),” she said. “He was just installed as the secretary-treasurer on the board, and will be the president four years from now.”

The position could grant Wyoming access and opportunities in national policymaking decisions that could affect the state. 

“To my knowledge, there has never been a president of NASDA from Wyoming,” Berry said.

During the summer of 2019, Miyamoto was also appointed president of the Western United States Agriculture Trade Association (WUSATA).

“WUSATA promotes the export of U.S. food and agriculture products throughout the world from the Western region of the country,” Berry said.

In conjunction with those leadership positions, Berry said the department has worked with the Wyoming Congressional Delegation to support farmers and ranchers in Washington D.C. 

Low: Weather 

A late spring and early winter prevented ag producers from getting seeds in the ground early enough and forced many to prematurely harvest their crops.

“In April and May, it was good and bad in that it was wet and cold,” Berry said. “Even though we were getting more moisture than we typically would, alleviating drought worries, that also put most everybody behind on spring work.”

Ag producers waited out the weather, which pushed harvest time later into fall, creating a domino effect that came to a head when the snows flew early. 

“Summer felt like it was here, and then, gone,” Berry said. 

While the weather affected crops statewide, she explained its impact was particularly felt by sugar beet producers and by crop producers in southeastern Wyoming, where increased spring precipitation was determined to be the primary factor in the  Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapse. 

Low: Tunnel collapse

In July, a century-old irrigation canal collapsed, leaving more than 100,000 acres of farm land in Wyoming and Nebraska without water during the hottest stretch of the year.

“(The USDA Risk Management Agency) were able to determine the cause of the collapse was weather related,” Berry said. “That was a very positive thing, because it meant ag producer’s insurance could cover their losses.”

Originally estimated to cost the economy about $90 million, the collapse affected more than 400 producers in Wyoming and Nebraska. 

A bout of late summer precipitation staved off the worst of the damages, a University of Wyoming spokesperson said in December

Tunnel repairs are slated to be complete by spring. 

Low: Sugar beet harvest

Sugar beet markets have been in flux for the last several years, resulting in the 2018 closure of a nearly century-old sugar beet plant in Goshen County, but weather was the culprit behind crop problems in 2019.

“A late spring and an early winter really hurt the sugar beet producers,” Berry said. “Your crop is never going to be as good when it’s frozen in the ground, and you’re trying to dig it out.”

A root product, freezing in the ground reduces the beet’s sugar content, and subsequently, its market price.

In December, Gordon sought to have the USDA declare Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties federal disaster areas as a result of the decline in beet harvests.

““Weather is a defining part of agriculture,” Berry said. “Wyoming is home to a lot of harsh weather, and you have to be very resilient as an agriculturist in any part of the state.”

It’s not yet clear if 2019’s weather will impact the 2020 growing season, but Berry said the department has its fingers crossed for a break in the storm.

“Even though winter showed up early, it depends on how long it decides to stay,” she said. “Weather really can dictate how any year goes for agriculture.”

The Value of Rural Subdivisions

in Agriculture/Cat Urbigkit/Column
Sublette County
2649

By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

Private ranches help to preserve open space and wildlife habitat, while urban dwelling condenses the size of the human imprint on the landscape. These benefits are readily understood, but the importance of rural subdivisions to local communities is often overlooked.

Rural subdivisions suffer from love/hate status. While many residents hate to see fragmentation of rural land, many other people dream of living on a few acres outside of town. They love the freedom offered by rural living, including raising their children with more outdoor space, and having animals that would be prohibited by municipal living. The large percentage of government land ownership in Wyoming serves to make land use planning for private property all the more critical since energy development on public land can cause a large influx of people in need of housing, yet the burden for providing housing falls to the limited amount of private land available.

Nearly half of Wyoming is managed by the federal government, and Wyoming continues to maintain its status as having the lowest human population of any state in the union. With our traditional public lands-based boom-and-bust energy cycle comes tremendous ebbs and flows in our human population. Sublette County is a prime example. With less than 6,000 residents in the county in 2000, the county boomed to a high of 10,476 people by 2012, with most of this growth associated with net migration due to energy development. With the energy bust, the county population declined more than 6 percent by 2019, to just over 9,800 people.

With the bust, Sublette County lost about 663 residents from its peak population. By 2017, 46 percent of Sublette County’s housing units were classified as vacant. That’s a startlingly high vacancy rate, but Sublette County has long been known for its hosting of “second” homes to people living outside the county. About 68 percent of the county’s vacant units are for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use (second homes), and 15 percent of the county’s vacant units are for rent or sale. But another 15 percent (428 homes) are classified as “other” vacant, which means they are not for sale or rent, or otherwise available to the marketplace. According to the Wyoming Community Development Authority, “These units may be problematic if concentrated in certain areas, and may create a ‘blighting’ effect.”

Although we lost more than 660 residents, what we see now is that some of the people who moved to Sublette County to work in the gas fields have decided to stay; either hanging on to what energy jobs are available, or finding other ways to make a living. They may have moved here for the boom, but have determined to stay for other reasons, despite the economic downturn. While some of these residents live in town, and some have constructed homes on large acreages, most often I see their presence reflected in rural subdivisions. They have greenhouses, art studios, vegetable gardens, and chicken coops. The kids learn to ride bicycles on dirt driveways; they construct primitive forts in their yards; and they go out into the pasture to “camp” in the summer. They wade in irrigation ditches on hot days, ride incessant laps on snow machines and dirt bikes, and feed calves, pigs, and lambs for show at the county fair.

Most of these families have animals – cats and dogs, chickens and other fowl, small and large livestock, and horses – and all of these animals require both space and food. Since the acreages are too small to be self-sustaining for their domestic animals, animal feedstuffs must be purchased and brought in, which adds to the local economy. I drive by a busy feedstore across from a rural subdivision every time I drive to town.

Although some decry rural subdivision of land for its scarring of the landscape and harm to nature, I maintain that for these rural residents, they are living as close to nature (blemished though it may be) as they possibly can. Their animals are what connect them to the land, and when the jobs that brought them here may go elsewhere, it is the land and animals that keep them here.

While some may notice the horses standing in a dirt-packed corral, I see that the horse owners have corralled the horses to give their limited pasture time to rest and grow. I see those horses loaded for roping competitions, fairs and rodeos, for family pack trips and hunting adventures, and for kids to ride bareback on the vast public lands nearby, where the kids climb off to explore horned toads and other wonders of nature that surround them.

While some see rural sprawl, I notice the installation of flowerbeds, scattered wildflowers over septic systems, and boxes lovingly crafted for bats, bluebirds, and kestrels. I see people who have taken some level of food security into their own hands, raising animals to provide meat for the freezer, and living and learning about the cycle of life and death, and knowing where their food comes from.

All forms of living have both societal and environmental impacts (negative and positive), but rural subdivisions are often maligned. This view fails to recognize that people can be drawn to our communities with properties in rural subdivisions, and these rural ranchettes can serve as anchors that connect communities while supporting local economies.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily. To request reprint permission or syndication of this column, email rangewritesyndicate@icloud.com.

Year of the Pig sees Wyoming cut the fat, celebrate equality, go gaga for choo-choo trains

in Agriculture/Business/Energy/Jobs/News/Transparency/wildlife
Year of the Pig
2613

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

In 2019, Wyoming celebrated the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage, welcomed back members of the Black 14 and bemoaned the worsening coal crisis.

Cowboy State Daily was there to cover it all.

Here’s some of our top stories from throughout the year.

Coal

Mineral extraction in Wyoming could enter a slump in the next four years, and the coal industry is slated to experience the worst of it, according to a report produced by Gov. Mark Gordon’s Power Wyoming initiative.

Some of the initiative’s scenarios predicted a recovery period in two years, but most, and the most likely, predicted a devastating decrease in both Wyoming’s total employment and population.

For the residents of coal country, those predictions could be life changing.

“The coal jobs have historically been the stable jobs,” said Alison Gee, a Gillette attorney. “Now, we’re shifting to an environment where we have to look to oil and gas to try and provide some of the stability for our families. And as you know, the oil and gas markets just aren’t that way. They’re very volatile because of the world economy.”

Although several hundred miners returned to work at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines after Eagle Specialty Materials assumed ownership from the bankrupt former owners, Blackjewel, the reverberations of 600 coal miners being laid off in one fell swoop earlier this year are still being felt statewide.

Corporate income tax

Despite dying in the Senate during the 2019 Legislative Session, a legislative committee is once again studying a proposal to impose an income tax on so-called “big box” stores.

The Legislature’s Joint Revenue Committee listened to testimony in September regarding a 7 percent corporate income tax on companies with more than 100 shareholders.

A similar proposal, House Bill No. 220, referred to as the National Retail Fairness Act, was not considered by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee before a deadline in February.

Both measures were raised as state officials were faced with rapid declines in the state’s mineral tax revenues, historically the biggest contributors to Wyoming coffers.

Irrigation collapse

After an irrigation canal collapsed, leaving more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Goshen County and Nebraska without water for months this summer, officials are looking into ways to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Built by the Bureau of Reclamation more than 100 years ago, the Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapsed in July, causing the governors of Wyoming and Nebraska to declare states of emergency.

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture later said crop losses would be covered by insurance, a previous economic analysis report produced jointly by the Nebraska Extension and University of Wyoming Extension originally estimated the collapse could cost both states about $90 million combined. 

Opening the books

After a years-long legal battle between Wyoming officials and non-profit organizations over state government transparency, Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines released Wyoming’s checkbook  shortly after taking office in January.

The data dump contained approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.

Racines took transparency a step further and launched a website dedicated to providing the public with basic spending data for the state.

Using the data provided through both the checkbook and website, Cowboy State Daily covered a series of state spending stories including the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s sponsorship of rodeo teams, the Wyoming Department of Correction’s purchases of religious items and a look at Wyoming’s own air fleet

Big Boy

The largest steam engine ever built, the Big Boy locomotive, crossed Wyoming for the first time in 60 years, bound for Utah and the 150th anniversary of the completion of the country’s first transcontinental railway.

“A steam locomotive is a living, breathing piece of machinery,” said Bob Krieger, a former steam locomotive engineer who now runs the UP Historical Society in Cheyenne. “You can see its muscles. You can hear it breathe as it pulls a grade. All steam engines do that. The Big Boy is just the biggest.”

Train enthusiasts from all over the world flocked to Wyoming to witness the historic trip.

Capitol renovations

State agencies started moving back into the Wyoming Capitol building this summer as a $300 million renovation project neared its end.

The refurbishment of the 129-year-old Capitol was the centerpiece for the Wyoming Capitol Square Project that also involved updating the Herschler Building to the north and the space between them.

The reopening ceremony coincided with the celebration of Wyoming’s Statehood Day, and the unveiling revealed a Capitol building considered to be much more accessible to the public, with larger rooms, broader passageways and more open space.

“They’ve done a lot of stuff here that opened up the Capitol,” said Joe McCord, the former facilities manager for the Capitol. “The stairs going into the House and Senate are wide open right now. Downstairs, you’ve got the galley that’s wide open. The rooms are bigger. I just love it, what they’ve done. They’ve done a great job.”

Despite being mostly complete, many agencies were still working with temporary furniture towards the end of the year as the state worked out the details of new furniture request for proposal.

Taco John’s

There was a whole lotta Mexican goin’ on at Taco John’s 50th anniversary this year, some of which the company is taking to Minnesota.

While founded in Cheyenne half a century ago, the fast food chain announced in December it was expanding its corporate office to Minneapolis, where there are more than 200 Taco John’s locations within a few hours drive from the city. But for those readers who can’t get enough oles, the franchise is slated to remain headquartered in Wyoming. 

Women’s Suffrage

State legislators kicked off the 2019 Legislative Session by passing a measure setting aside a day to recognize Wyoming as the first state in the nation to give women the right to vote.

The measure declared Dec. 10 as “Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Day,” which marks the day in 1869 when Territorial Gov. John Campbell signed the bill giving women the right to vote in Wyoming.

Marking the occasion with music, the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra commissioned an original work from American composer Stephanie Ann Boyd. 

“Wyoming, of course, put through women’s suffrage about 50 years before everybody else, and so we’re taking the inspiration of that, and the stories of the women that were instrumental in that, and writing a piece about them, but also writing essentially a 25-minute minute love letter to Wyoming,” Boyd said.

On Dec. 10, women and men marched to the Capitol commemorating the newly declared holiday and highlighting instances of inequality that still need to be addressed.

Black 14 

Fifty years after the University of Wyoming expelled 14 members of its football team, known as the Black 14, for wearing black armbands onto the field, race relations are still strained in the Equality State, said Mel Hamilton, one of the Black 14.

“It’s a shame to say, but it’s pretty much the same as when I entered Wyoming in 1965,” Hamilton said, adding, “with one exception — it went underground.”

Adding diversity to the history books and teaching students how minorities contributed to growth of the U.S. as well as informing them how racism was cultivated by ignorance would be a strong step toward improving Wyoming’s future race relations, Hamilton said. 

“They must be allowed to learn what other races have given this country,” he said. “They are ready to lead the way if we — the old vanguard — just get out of the way and let them do it.”

Chronic Wasting Disease 

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department released a draft plan to address a fatal disease running rampant through the state’s wildlife population.

“(Chronic Wasting Disease) has been documented spreading throughout the state, and there are areas where its prevalence is high enough that we think it could be having significant impacts on some of our herds,” said Justin Binfet, one of the plan’s authors and a Game and Fish Department wildlife management coordinator. “The plan is based on recommendations that were developed through an extensive collaborative process.”

Dubbed a “suite of strategies,” the plan suggests managing the disease by installing wildlife feeding bans, potentially targeting mule deer bucks during breeding season, voluntary and mandatory submission of harvested animal samples and working with landowners, cities and counties to eliminate areas with unintentionally high concentrations members of the deer family.

Repairs on track for collapsed irrigation tunnel near Torrington

in Agriculture/News
Goshen Irrigation Canal water
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

As repairs move forward on an irrigation tunnel near Torrington, the Oregon Trail Community Foundation (OTCF) is slated to disperse donations to affected farmers.

“We’re working on the repairs that the (U.S.) Bureau of Reclamation is requiring, so we can run water next year,” Goshen Irrigation District Manager Rob Posten said. “We have to put in some more support ribs and do some void grouting (between the tunnel wall and surrounding soil) still.”

Built by the Bureau of Reclamation more than 100 years ago, the Gering/Fort Laramie Irrigation Canal collapsed in July, cutting irrigation water off to more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Goshen County and Nebraska.

To help farmers recover losses to crops resulting from the collapse, the OTCF announced it would soon start dispersing $300,000 in donations raised by various organizations and events in the area.

On the tunnel repair side, funding is still in the works, Posten said.

“The Bureau of Reclamation hasn’t paid for anything, but they have offered us some loans,” he explained. “We did get some funding from the Wyoming State Land and Investment Board — about $4 million.”

The long-term loan was given at a 2.5 percent interest rate and could pay for about half the cost of repairs, which Posten said were estimated to be about $8 million.

The boards of directors for both the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation districts are considering applying for additional funding from the State Land Investment Board in the near future, he added.

While the initial estimates for economic impact of the collapse varied wildly, Brian Lee, a University of Wyoming Extension agriculture economist, said the affected area’s economical outlook is much brighter than originally estimated.

“I don’t think the damage to the crops was as bad as it could have been,” Lee explained. “I think a lot of people got water at the end of the season, right when they needed it.”

Based out of the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture and Research Extension Center in Goshen County, Lee co-authored a report estimating a total loss of all the crops irrigated via the tunnel could run about $90 million. The report assumed crop insurance would not cover losses, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency has since decided crop losses would be covered by insurance.

“Rather than a payment per acre, which was previously speculated,” Lee said, “(ag producer’s) insurance will work with them on their losses based on the insurance coverage they had at the beginning of the season.”

While the situation is better than predicted, the area could still suffer.

“There’s going to be a cost with all these tunnel repairs, and some of that will come back on these farmers with increased irrigation costs,” Lee explained. “We’re talking long-term loans that are going to be around for awhile.”

Beginning at the Whalen Diversion Dam near Guernsey, the Goshen and Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation districts’ main canal runs through three tunnels on a 129-mile stretch across Goshen County and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

To prevent future collapses, Posten said the district boards voted to upgrade the tunnels with permeation grouting, which could cost an additional $3.5 million.

Once funding is secured for both the current repairs and future upgrades, the projects could be complete in 2021, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln reported.

As the two states work toward preventing future collapses, Lee said ag producers could be considering additional protections.

“I think a lot of people — midway through the season — they didn’t have any water and got to thinking about different ways to get water to their plot or different crops to plant next season,” he said. “In the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a little more risk mitigation crops going in.”

Center pivots for irrigation — in which water is pumped to sprinklers that move in a large circle — could be another option, Lee said, but the statutes regulating water usage by center pivots are so complex the equipment might not be viable without new legislation.

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