SHERIDAN – Farming has long played a key role in Wyoming’s history, and it remains one of the driving forces of the state’s economy and culture.
According to Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division, there were 14,781 jobs at farms in the state in 2019 — an increase of more than 1,700 since the turn of the millennium.
And in a state where cattle outnumber humans 3 to 1, the work of local ranchers is still the state’s heartbeat, according to U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming.
“I want to thank you for everything you do every day to serve the families of this state,” Lummis said in an address to the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Friday. “As I frequently like to point out, you’re on the school boards, you’re on the county commissioners, you’re running your cities. And you make Wyoming’s culture significant. Agriculture and culture are one and the same in Wyoming so we’re just so grateful for what livestock producers in our state do for our state… It’s not just our livelihood, but our way of life that you are taking care of and protecting.”
Lummis appeared virtually during the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association’s summer conference at Sheridan’s Holiday Inn Friday morning.
Later in the day, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, addressed the association in person. Cheney’s speech at the convention was rescheduled at the last minute, and The Press was not notified.
Lummis used her limited time before the association to thank stockgrowers for their contributions to the state and inform them of some of the work she was doing in Washington, D.C. to ensure the state’s agricultural industry continues to thrive.
A key way to ensure the market’s success is to help it remain competitive, Lummis said.
Lummis said she was pressing for updates from the Department of Justice’s antitrust division on its investigation into the nation’s four largest meatpackers — Tyson Foods, JBS SA, Cargill and National Beef — which control more than 80 percent of the nation’s beef processing.
Their dominance has sparked concerns about their pricing power over livestock suppliers.
“Amazingly, they’re making $1,200 a head right now,” Lummis said of the “big four” meat processors. “I don’t think any of you are making $1,200 a head even though you’re doing a bulk of the work in raising our cattle….We need a level playing field. We can’t allow some to have a leg up on competition just because they have cornered the market.”
Executive Vice President of the Stockgrowers Association Jim Magagna agreed.
“The big four, we need them as an industry,” Magagna said. “It’s certainly not about destroying them because we could not raise and market the volume of beef both domestically and through exports without those big operations. But we need them to be operating in a matter that is not an antitrust violation and that ensures the live cattle producers are getting their fair share of return on the final product. And we aren’t there today.”
Magagna said the association eagerly awaits the results of the investigation.
“It’s hard to proceed until we know if what is happening is happening because of illegal activity or just because of market problems,” Magagna said. “Knowing that, you know what the solution might be. Is the solution more government regulation of those operations or is it… to develop additional processing (facilities) to make it a more competitive marketplace?”
Lummis also hopes to expand the market for Wyoming-raised meat, which is why she is a co-sponsor, along with U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, of the New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry Act.
Currently, there are 27 states, including Wyoming, with state inspection programs comparable to federal meat and/or poultry inspection programs, Lummis said.
However, products processed at these facilities are not allowed to be sold across state lines. This legislation would change that.
“I want to make sure that meat produced and inspected in Wyoming can be sold across the country so the rest of the United States can enjoy the high-quality products we grow in Wyoming,” Lummis said.
Magagna said the legislation would be “very helpful” for local stockgrowers if it moves forward.
“Because most of them (state facilities) are producing at capacity today, interstate shipment of state-inspected meat isn’t going to be an immediate gift,” Magagna said. “But it provides them with some incentive to expand some of those facilities.”
Magagna said the stockgrowers association was keeping an eye on national legislation as the stockgrowers industry — like many industries in the state — recovered from a difficult 2020.
“This year, markets are stronger although they’re not as high as we feel they should be given the price of beef,” Magagna said. “I think the big factors affecting us going forward is, No. 1, drought…. and then the other one is the uncertainty of what’s coming out of Washington. With both, we’re just watching and waiting to see what happens.”