Just a few short years ago, Wyoming Legacy Meats in Cody became the first U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat processor in the state in more than 40 years.
Today, there are a dozen USDA-inspected meat processors in Wyoming, from Hawk Springs to Hudson and from Sheridan to Laramie. State inspected slaughter facilities number half a dozen, and there are also a handful of operational state-inspected processing-only facilities in Wyoming.
According to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, all meat processed under a state inspection can be bought and sold in restaurants, schools and grocery stores in Wyoming only. No interstate commerce is allowed for state-inspected meat. All meat processed under federal USDA inspection can be sold anywhere in the country, and it is the only meat eligible for international shipment.
“One of the things I say is that most of us grew up in a time when there was a butcher shop, a creamery and a flour mill in our communities. Look around the state and show me a town that has those three now,” said James Klessens, CEO of Forward Cody. “But I just heard of another little facility that has gotten their USDA certification in Wyoming, and I’m tickled that that has happened.”
Forward Cody is spearheading a nearly $5 million effort in northwestern Wyoming to build a processing facility capable of slaughtering 75-100 head of cattle a day. The plant would be owned by Forward Cody for 20 years and would be located at the North Cody Industrial Park. Wyoming Legacy Meats would operate in the facility.
In June, the city of Cody requested a $1 million Business Ready Community grant to construct the processing facility from the Wyoming Business Council. Projects will be considered at a September WBC meeting.
“We hope to be in a position this fall to break ground and start building,” Klessens said.
Consolidation over decades
When Wyoming Legacy Meats received its USDA certification in 2018, the market opened outside of the state’s borders for the first time in many years.
Klessens said the former owners began marketing products in Billings, Montana. He said it soon became obvious to the company that to compete with the biggest meat processors, Wyoming Legacy Meats would have to reach 50-75 head a day slaughter capacity.
“We put together a plan to expand the plant and have had the architectural renderings done, and that was all happening around COVID-19,” Klessens said.
During pandemic-induced shortages and spiking beef prices, people realized what those in the industry had known for decades: There was a problem in the nation’s food supply chain.
“What we have done is we have centralized all processing into these big companies, who now provide it for pennies on the dollar at Walmart, and we have lost any control of the local food supply,” Klessens said.
Small processors like Wyoming Legacy Meats saw an opportunity open up during the pandemic, as buyers wanted access to quality, local food. To compete, processors must have support, Klessens said.
“So why them?” he said. “Well, when we do Business Council grants … the simple answer is this: It is really difficult to be in the beef industry going up against the three companies that have owned 85% of beef processing in the United States for years. To enter into that arena, you have to have scale.”
This spring, Wyoming Legacy Meats sold to Complete Human.
Complete Human co-founder Evan DeMarco said the focus shifted to regenerative agriculture.
“Wyoming is kind of the bedrock for regenerative practices. Most of the producers and ranchers are doing some kind of grass-fed, managed rotational grazing,” DeMarco said. “That’s the way Wyoming has done things for a long time, and the market has now kind of slapped a label on it and called it regenerative practices.”
Knowing that the trends in the consumer market show more and more people across the nation want regenerative products, Wyoming Legacy Meats, with an expanded facility and USDA certification, is in a unique position to pair with Wyoming producers while shipping beef directly to consumers, DeMarco said.
“It’s been going fantastically. We’re so far behind on our production capacity. We simply can’t produce fast enough, which is why we’ve worked with Forward Cody and others who are instrumental in securing USDA funds to help us go from 50 head a week to 100,” DeMarco said.
The typical large processing facility puts cattle in a feedlot where they are fed hormones, antibiotics and pumped full of grain for 12 months before they are slaughtered.
“What that means is a really unhealthy planet, and an incredibly unhealthy kind of beef,” DeMarco said. “This is where we come back to Wyoming, where this grass-fed, grass-finished movement has been something Wyoming has focused on for so long. It produces a healthier kind of beef.”
AJ Richards, president of Wyoming Legacy Meats, said U.S. food security is vulnerable because there simply are not enough small processors nationally.
“The amount of issues in this field are vast. They’re not just one thing here or there,” Richards said. “But being at a central meeting point where people who produce food bring it to us (at Wyoming Legacy Meats) for distribution, we have an opportunity to have an influence in the conversation.”
Richards said that for the Wyoming producer, that can mean a reduction in food miles, so a rancher who used to drive cattle from Ten Sleep to Colorado for processing can cut hundreds of miles – and gas money – out of the equation by using a local processor. They can also use regenerative practices to make more money per pound, he said.
Wyoming Legacy Meats is developing a direct consumer platform, cutting out unnecessary middlemen, DeMarco said.
“One of the concerns I think everybody should have in the meat processing, or beef industry as a whole, is the sheer number of people involved in the transaction, from the feedlot to the auction house and the broker,” DeMarco said.
All those extra hands in the pot, he said, mean the producers make less money.
“Ultimately, what that leads to is the rancher making less money and the consumer paying more, because more people who have no hand in the business make the lion’s share of the money,” DeMarco said. “We wanted to optimize things for the rancher and also provide the consumers with the very best product we can.”