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Ranchers want to take on the top beef sellers by starting their own meat plants

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Just four companies dominate about 85% of the beef processing market. That means higher prices for consumers and lower returns for the people raising the animals. So some ranchers and cattle feeders are organizing to build their own processing plants. Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports on a rancher-led meatpacking project in Nebraska.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: Hundreds of cows crowd close to the edges of a pen to push their heads through a fence and get to the golden grains in a feed trough. Trey Wasserburger looks out at the cattle from his pickup. He works at this feed yard alongside his father-in-law outside of North Platte, Neb.

TREY WASSERBURGER: These will be probably ready to go here in the next 30 or 40 days, and they'll go to a large packer. And they'll be in the beef supply chain in 60 days, probably.

REMBERT: He says it takes three years of hard work to even get the cows to this point. And now the feed yard work starts. Cassie Lapaseotes runs another feed yard in western Nebraska and says it operates kind of like how you expect a clean bed at a hotel.

CASSIE LAPASEOTES: So when these cattle come into a feed yard, we want their pens to be clean, their water tanks to be clean, the feed to be freshly laid out in front of them.

REMBERT: Wasserburger and Lapaseotes are proud of how they take care of their animals to bring quality meat to the market. But right now their paychecks don't reflect the sweat, science and money they've invested.

WASSERBURGER: Not yet. That's where Sustainable Beef comes in.

REMBERT: Wasserburger and Lapaseotes are founders and board members of Sustainable Beef, a meatpacking plant owned and designed by ranchers and cattle feeders. Ranchers are working on similar projects in Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota and Idaho. They hope that keeping processing closer to home can help them regain control and profit to keep their livelihood sustainable into the future. In Nebraska, the idea gained momentum after the pandemic, when COVID forced packers to limit operations and turn away market-ready cattle.

WASSERBURGER: I still remember June of 2020. We couldn't get any cattle in anywhere. I lost a third of my equity in cattle almost overnight.

REMBERT: It was a new low as ranchers lost buyers and shoppers faced empty meat shelves. But it wasn't a new problem. For decades, companies like Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef have absorbed other meat processors, leaving fewer buyers to compete for animals. At the future home of the meatpacking plant, about a hundred people work to move dirt and drive trucks at the construction site. When Sustainable Beef is operational, it'll process around 1,500 cattle a day. That's roughly 1.5% of the nation's capacity. But they're not trying to compete against the big four packers, Wasserburger says.

WASSERBURGER: It's like comparing the Yankees to my son's T-ball team. We don't want to be the Yankees, and we're not pretending like we are. This model works for us and our families, and so we're going to play ball how we know.

REMBERT: They might have an uphill road just to stay in the game. Past startups in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa have tripped over logistics, collapsed under market pressure or even been swallowed up by one of the giant packers. Austin Frerick, a Yale University fellow who studies concentration in the meat market, hopes they can find a foothold.

AUSTIN FRERICK: If they can carve out a niche where they can play T-ball, at least they're playing baseball.

REMBERT: But he says the broader industry needs regulation to truly level the playing field for projects like Sustainable Beef.

FRERICK: I want a bunch of baseball teams. I think the best thing we can do for them is break up the big four, put competition back into these markets so they have a chance to succeed.

REMBERT: The ranchers know it's a challenge. But for a new future in cattle, they think it's worth a try. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert.

SUMMERS: A version of this story also aired on Climate One, the climate change podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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