Montana producers confront meat processing backlog

Three weeks ago, rancher Angela Campbell was on the verge of shutting down her retail meat business, after confronting what’s been a consistent obstacle since starting: meat processing.

While Angela had the pigs and cows already primed for butchering and the demand was there for the meat itself, the facilities she looked at already had waitlists scheduled through December.

As her last reserves of the packed meat her family sells at local markets and to subscribers dwindled, she luckily found a place roughly 90 miles away in Helena that was able to squeeze in some of her livestock.

“It was one of those situations where it’s like — the animals are ready,” Angela said, gesturing to the herd of roughly 35 red Hereford cows grazing at the sixth-generation Old Medicine Ranch. “But it’s finding the butcher that’s continually been our biggest challenge.”

That delay in processing results in the additional feeding of cows that would otherwise be ready for butchering.

In an already low-profit industry for small-scale meat producers like Angela, those months of delay can be costly. The price of feed has increased drastically in the past couple years. For the Campbells, hay has gone from roughly $110 a ton to $300 a ton, affected by previous years of drought. And pig feed has gone from $300 a ton to $650 a ton in the past two years.

For local producers across Montana, long waitlists at meatpackers have become common, with some ranchers learning to schedule years ahead as the bottleneck prevents them from maintaining and expanding their businesses.

One of the largest processing plants in western Montana, Superior Meats in Superior, is already fully booked for the rest of the year. It currently processes 240-250 animals a month.

The increase in demand started during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Kali Stroot, who operates the retail storefront at Superior Meats.

“There was a huge boom right at that time,” Stroot said. “I think it’s just the combination of people wanting to buy local and support local and wanting to know where their meat is coming from. In the past three years there’s been a huge, huge influx.”

Stroot also attributed recent demand increases to higher costs for ranching.

“Just the cost of basic fertilizer, hay, the things it takes to take care of animals, that’s going up substantially, too,” Stroot said. “So, I find people to be in the position where they can’t really afford to have the cattle anymore. They need those processed as they can’t afford to feed them anymore.”

Angela started selling meat to consumers in 2021. She and her daughter Kaitlyn Campbell both have autoimmune diseases. They found the grass-fed organic meat raised on their ranch helps with their existing health conditions. With a growing herd, they wanted to share their product with consumers who want to know where their meat is coming from and that it’s healthy, too.

“I’ve seen a huge change in the people we sell to where it’s more than ‘we want local meat’ and it’s now ‘we want meat that we know is going to be healthy,’” Kaitlyn said. “They’re seeing how food affects your health, whether that’s through veggies or meat.”


Four companies process roughly 85% of all beef in the nation. Less than 5% of beef grown in Montana is processed here. Instead, it is shipped out of state, typically first to feedlots in places like Iowa, Kansas and Colorado. It is then ultimately processed there, where it might return back to store shelves in Montana.

Last year, the Missoula City-County Food Policy Advisory Board helped the county apply for a feasibility study of potential new meat processors. The application wasn’t successful, but that hasn’t stopped them from looking at potential options for market analysis in the future.

“It really hits on a lot of the key goals of the board,” Board Chairwoman Erika Berglund said. “From a sustainability perspective, just having producers go to local meat processors, so that it can be consumed locally, is really valuable. And then of course, there’s the economic development component of the community better supporting local producers. Ranching is a very difficult business endeavor for a variety of reasons, and it’s especially difficult economically. And so, if producers were able to process locally, logistically and financially it could be a boon for them.”

Berglund said decades ago in the 1980s when meat processors were more plentiful in Missoula, roughly 70% of food consumed in town was locally produced. Over the past few decades, that’s changed drastically, yet the demand for more locally produced food is on the upswing.

“I think right now there is a desire to shift back for so many reasons,” Berglund said. “Like economically, environmentally, and just building a community that knows where their food comes from and being able to support the rancher down the street.”

Inadequate availability

In the Flathead Valley, rancher Mark Siderius of Siderius Family Farms has experienced wait times for meat processors as a consistent problem. During the pandemic, for his farm, wait times went from 12 months to 18 months, with him now setting dates in place for 2024 and 2025.

Siderius estimated that meat processors are probably only meeting 50% of the current demand in the region.

“It’s pretty relatable across western Montana,” said Siderius, who is president of the Flathead Local Chapter of the Montana Farmers’ Union. “I know there is a huge shortage of capacity for people to go directly to the market and get processing done right now.”

So, when a Kalispell meat processing plant owner was planning to shut down and be sold, Siderius helped spearhead an effort to keep it open as a cooperative model called Glacier Processing Co-op, instead of having the property lost to the rapid pace of development in the area.

“None of us really wanted to be the owners and managers of a meat processing facility,” Siderius said. “So, a co-op was the obvious way of doing that. With this system, it will be able to operate in perpetuity and continue to grow.”

Siderius said new processing plants just haven’t developed in the region to go alongside increases in demand. Additionally, expansion proves costly for many locally owned processing plants.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has dedicated funding to help meet the current demanding environment faced by local meat processors, according to USDA Public Information Officer Mark McCann.

Additionally, in 2022, USDA added Montana to the Cooperative Interstate Shipment agreement intended to expand market availability and supply chain issues. The agreement allowed for shipping and retailing of meat from state-inspected plants across state lines. Before that, producers would have to go to specific USDA-inspected plants if they planned to ship out of state.

Angela said she avoids shipping out of state, although the demand proves to be there nearly every week. Profit margins are even lower and it is often time-consuming just preparing packages. It requires dry ice to be used in specific packaging, sometimes adding $130 in shipping costs to the bill. She said her neighbors who sell processed Highlander cows found shipping to be a nightmare. The only way they could afford to ship was to put it in a cooler and have it transferred via Greyhound bus instead.

Funding has been provided by the Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant Program, which could contribute to a tribal meat processing plant in Ronan, and the Local Meat Capacity Grant Program.

In the last two years, the USDA has provided grants totaling more than $33 million to Montana meat processors as part of its Meat and Poultry Intermediary Lending Program. $15 million of that went to Montana West Economic Development in Kalispell for expansion of processing operations for four counties in the Flathead Valley.

“This investment is a perfect example of our role in supporting both the local and regional food economy as well as our regional lending partners,” USDA Rural Development Montana Director Kathleen Williams said in June. “We are honored to help in this way and many others to build rural and Tribal stability and prosperity.”

‘A passion project’

July wasn’t the first time Angela considered closing down in the meat retailing business.

Driving over an ice patch in November, Angela and Kaitlyn ended up in a rollover, leading them to sell livestock to pay for expenses from severe injuries. The furthest Angela has driven since then has been to the freeway exit a mile from their ranch this July.

“It was a long winter,” said Lisa Campbell, Angela’s mother, who helps make meat-related products on the ranch. Lisa and her husband were the first to arrive at the car accident.

Angela’s parents helped maintain the ranch as well as neighbors who now helped them with things like borrowing a trailer when they will take some of their cows and pigs to be processed later this August.

They restarted the business late in the winter after pausing it.

Also in the year before, meat processing prices went up by 50% for them, threatening to put them out of business. Angela attributed the price increase to the demand meat processors continue to see.

Nonetheless, it could be Old Medicine Ranch’s first year of making a profit in the meat retailing business.

Even though Angela said prices are on the higher end compared with other retailers, they still end up only earning enough to manage expenses, with a profit of roughly $500 on a pig and $1,100 on a cow.

“It’s definitely a passion project,” Kaitlyn said. “You don’t get into this to make money.”

Angela echoed her comments on the ranch full of chickens, geese, goats, pigs and cows.

“The animals are my sanity,” Angela said. “They keep me grounded. It really is a passion, when I see how much our quality helps. And so, I really just want to provide that to our customers.”