Cindy Goertz’s family has been ranching in Wyoming for a long time.
The family has been producing high-quality, well-fed beef on their eco-friendly patch of land outside of Wheatland since 1910. And even now, after more than a century, they are looking to grow.
“We’re just trying to take it one step at a time, expand as we can, and see wherever that takes us,” she said. “We’re growing enough that perhaps one day, one of our children will be able to take it over and sustain it. I guess that’s our big goal.”
And unlike many ranchers in Wyoming, Wyomingites have had an opportunity to taste the products she puts out.
Despite the state’s pride in its ranching industry, real Wyoming beef can actually be challenging to find here, a problem compounded by high demand out-of-state, a growing international market and a lack of nearby USDA-certified processing facilities, forcing many ranchers to sell to larger packers at a fraction of what they could make independently.
Goertz, however, has been able to buck that trend. Since 2004, the Goertz family has been operating a company called Wyoming Pure Beef, an independent business that allows her to sell her products directly to consumers right here in Wyoming – no middle man needed.
“We ship everywhere,” said Goertz.
That’s not to say it’s been easy for Goertz, who for years has relied on a USDA-certified processing plant more than two hours away in Kersey, Colorado, to help bring her product to market. It’s an often inconvenient exercise for Goertz, who said wait times for an appointment at independent processing plants can often last anytime between six months to a year — an obstacle to her ability to plan long-term.
“It really makes it tough for a small producer to get anything processed if you don’t know a year to six months in advance if you need an appointment,” she said.
“The local food movement is huge, and even in a small state like Wyoming, you would think everyone would know who grows what and where you can get it,” she added. “But that’s really not the case.”
Part of the reason is access to markets and a lack of resources needed to get there, said Ron Gullberg, who oversees ag policy for the Wyoming Business Council. For the past year, he has been coordinating a multi-pronged promotional effort for the product with the Wyoming Beef Council and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
The imperative behind local meat, he said, is the opportunity to capitalize on products grown in Wyoming to not only increase the availability of premium products within the state, but to improve the prosperity of ranchers and other producers who have long been reliant on out-of-state companies to make their living.
“They just feel like that was the way the beef industry operates now is they just have one choice, and it’s these large processors that buy at commodity prices,” Gullberg said.
The status quo will change soon, however. In Laramie, Kelcey Christensen – founder of the Laramie-based 307 Meat Company and manager of the University of Wyoming Meat Laboratory – will be opening up a USDA-certified processing plant and retail facility of his own, a significant development for small producers around the state who have longed for a means to sell their product locally.
The plant will join another such facility in Fremont County within the next year.
The inspiration to open a plant of his own came from a number of factors, Christensen said, namely the retirement of a number of older meat processors in the state and a rejuvenated effort within Wyoming to spur economic development and build opportunities for the state’s young people. Though there are a number of processing plants in Wyoming right now, Christensen said they’re often very specialized, and not well-suited for producers looking to sell their own brand – no matter how big or small they are.
“What we’re doing is specializing in helping the rancher niche market or direct market their products,” Christensen said. “For example, we have guys that are wanting to only do 12 head a year, and we also customers that are doing 200 head a year. With us, they would have the ability to bring it to us, get it processed under USDA inspection, get it custom-labeled with their labels on it and then be able to go out and market those products.”
Though the opportunity will not be universal for all ranchers, the ability to sell their product directly could result in profits two to three times the amount one could earn from selling to a large packer, which values beef at much lower, commodity-level prices. However, Christensen said his processing plant could help to spur on a local market for products like summer sausages or snack sticks that may not have existed before, providing a steady stream of supply to local gas stations, markets and local restaurants and cafes.
“If they market and produce the right type of products and find that market, they have the opportunity to double if not even triple the value, the animal that they’re selling on the market today,” he said.
It’s too early to know how high that demand will be, or how high the ceiling is, Gullberg said. However, the Wyoming Business Council plans on releasing a long-awaited study on the state’s beef industry next month, which will hope to outline market demand as well as identify opportunities for Wyoming to capitalize on what it sees as a unique, niche opportunity for economic development.
“There’s not a lot of states trying to brand their beef in such a commodity-driven industry right now,” he said. “I think it’s all about finding opportunities and figuring out the feasibility and barriers we have for private industry to work with that, and then figure out how they work with local economic development and the Business Council and others.