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Montana Has More Cows Than People. Why Are Locals Eating Beef From Brazil?

Montana Has More Cows Than People. Why Are Locals Eating Beef From Brazil?

“Making It Work” is a series is about small-business owners striving to endure hard times.

While many people can conjure up romantic visions of a Montana ranch — vast valleys, cold streams, snow-capped mountains — few understand what happens when the cattle leave those pastures. Most of them, it turns out, don’t stay in Montana.

Even here, in a state with nearly twice as many cows as people, only around 1 percent of the beef purchased by Montana households is raised and processed locally, according to estimates from Highland Economics, a consulting firm. As is true in the rest of the country, many Montanans instead eat beef from as far away as Brazil.

Here’s a common fate of a cow that starts out on Montana grass: It will be bought by one of the four dominant meatpackers — JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and Marfrig — which process 85 percent of the country’s beef; transported by a company like Sysco or US Foods, distributors with a combined value of over $50 billion; and sold at a Walmart or Costco, which together take in roughly half of America’s food dollars. Any ranchers who want to break out from this system — and, say, sell their beef locally, instead of as anonymous commodities crisscrossing the country — are Davids in a swarm of Goliaths.

“The beef packers have a lot of control,” said Neva Hassanein, a University of Montana professor who studies sustainable food systems. “They tend to influence a tremendous amount throughout the supply chain.” For the nation’s ranchers, whose profits have shrunk over time, she said, “It’s kind of a trap.”

Cole Mannix is trying to escape that trap.

Mr. Mannix, 40, has a tendency to wax philosophical. (He once thought about becoming a Jesuit priest.) Like members of his family have since 1882, he grew up ranching: baling hay, helping to birth calves, guiding cattle into the high country on horseback. He wants to make sure the next generation, the sixth, has the same opportunity.

So, in 2021, Mr. Mannix co-founded Old Salt Co-op, a company that aims to upend the way people buy meat.

While many Montana ranchers sell their calves into the multibillion-dollar industrial machine when they’re less than a year old, never to see or profit from them again, Old Salt’s livestock never leave the company’s hands. The cattle are raised by Old Salt’s four member ranches, slaughtered and processed at its meatpacking facility, and sold through its ranch-to-table restaurants, community events and…

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