SHERIDAN — The U.S. Department of Agriculture livestock board predicted a record-setting red meat and poultry production year for 2020, indicating large economic growth and low unemployment rates as the demand for processed meat grew.

But no one could have predicted the lasting effects COVID-19 would have on the United States' food supply or the bright future it’s begun to pave for local producers and meat processors. 

“I think it scared a lot of people going to the grocery store and they couldn’t find what they were looking for,” said Wendy Bocek, owner of Valley Meat Co. “Now we’re scheduled out further than we ever have been and people are still calling and we can’t get them in.” 

Valley Meat is not the only meat processing company that has seen a dramatic influx of work in recent months.

“If you want to look for the silver lining for the pandemic, it’s that it’s kept us busy enough to keep our knives going and paid throughout the entire year,” said Lindsee Hoffman, plant manager of Big Horn Meat Cutting. “We are already booked out through next year.”

Ranchers, too, are seeing the benefits. 

“It gets us to the end goal without multiple middlemen, our meat in your freezer and you know exactly where it came,” said Patrick Pearce, a rancher on Wolf Creek.

Wyoming isn’t only seeing large amounts of beef processed. Hoffman noted pork became a hot commodity during the meat shortage, too. 

She noted she had seen ranchers struggling to find customers for about 300 finished pigs when all of a sudden people were coming out of the woodwork to purchase the meat.

With hunting season in full swing, too, local butchers have to make additional room and time for both in-state and out-of-state hunters alongside local producers. 

“Our out-of-state hunters are phenomenal,” Hoffman said. “These gentlemen come in, hunt, enjoy our towns and then donate hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of meat that will go to food pantries across the region in the next month, making sure there is plenty of meat and forks to go around for all of us.” 

As of September, the supply of beef in Wyoming has continued to grow as well. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association reported that in the last year, the state produced around 75,000 head of grain-finished cattle to be processed. 

George Connolly, a rancher from Sheridan agreed that he’s seen a large influx in demand locally for his beef. 

“I usually have some wiggle room when someone comes to me for a beef or a half of a beef, but in the last few months I’ve had consistent buyers who’ve just kept me out of stock so when anyone else approaches me about buying processed meat I can’t make it happen,” Connolly said.

The high demand, though, isn’t without issues.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the high demand for local meat paired with an active hunting season has caused a bottleneck for local processors.

According to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming has roughly 50 meat processing facilities, which are broken down into categories:state inspected, custom exempt and wild game. Over half of those are not state or federally inspected, meaning facilities are only capable of processing the meat and are unable to sell it. 

“It’s a handful of challenges like that, but mainly it’s just a capacity issue,” Magana said, adding that some members of the Stock Growers Association have to make an appointment more than a year in advance to get an animal processed for their own personal use.

“How much room for expansion are we leaving our producers if when there is inquiry for beef, I can’t provide it because I can’t get my meat processed in a timely manner?” Connolly asked. “How do we help the producers, the processors and the buyers considering we’re all looking for the same means?” 

Using CARES Act funding, the state has created the Wyoming Meat Processing Expansion Grant program, which will utilize as much as $10 million to help meat processors looking to expand their facilities.

Gov. Mark Gordon announced the program, which will be administered by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Sept. 1.

While the pandemic hindered the supply chain for meat across the country, those involved in the industry expressed optimism in the renewed interest in buying local meats.

“I was beginning to think butchery was going to become a lost art and the trade would soon die,” Hoffman said. “But the direction things are going, I’m more hopeful than I have been in a long time. We steered away from freezers full of meat and it’s going to take a change in mentality, but I think we are headed into a bright future.”

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