During her second year of school at Cascade Culinary Institute in 2017, Anna Borgman decided to take a butchery class. “Something in that class clicked with me,” she says. “I like cooking, but my brain just doesn’t work that way. But butchery. … It was in my bones. I was like, ‘This is what I have to do.’”

When Borgman, 35, chose to pursue a career in butchery, her mom pointed out that the work was, literally, in her DNA. Her great-grandma Gladis was a butcher in California’s Bay Area nearly 70 years ago. “Mom remembered her coming home from the butcher shop with blood on her, and her hands would be cold because they were cutting in the cooler,” Borgman recalls. “It made me question where my desire was coming from.”

That year, Borgman’s mother gifted her Gladis’ union card — dated 1954 — for her birthday. It serves as a reminder that past generations of family who we never met are still somehow part of us. “It gave me goosebumps,” she says. “That little piece of something I could grasp onto, some lineage that I felt without knowing it.”

Butchery — a job that might seem like a trade of yesteryear — has taken on new importance in 2022. Meat processing, which includes slaughtering and butchery, is key in the food supply chain. It’s how a rancher’s cattle become food for the dinner table. But now, possibly more than ever, we need more butchers like Borgman. 

Photography by Becca Skinner

Due to corporate consolidation, four conglomerates currently control 85% of the nation’s beef processing — leveraging a chokepoint in the industry by increasing costs of meat products for consumers while simultaneously lowering rates for the animals they buy from ranchers. And after decades of increasing consolidation, the fate of family-owned beef ranches  — and grocery store prices — are reaching a point of crisis.

Borgman and her co-workers in Amsterdam, Montana, are striving to be a small spark of a desperately needed solution to a very big problem.

During a speech at the White House in January, President Joe Biden noted the problem, stating, “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation. … Small, independent farmers and ranchers are being driven out of business — sometimes businesses that have been around for generations. It strikes at their dignity, their respect and the family legacies so many of them carried for generations.”

It’s easier as consumers scanning grocery store shelves to not think about the important role butchery plays in the game of food economy, but Borgman and her co-workers in Amsterdam, Montana — a person and a place that you’ve likely never heard of — are striving to be a small spark of a desperately needed solution to a very big problem. A problem that affects every link in the chain, whether you’re living on a family farm on the brink of bankruptcy or you’re craving a burger for dinner.  

During the 1980s, four meatpacking corporations — Tyson, National Beef, JBS and Cargill — began buying out smaller, regional meat processors and butcheries. Over the next four decades, these corporations’ margins widened, allowing them to continue buying out bigger and bigger regional processors. This slow and steady march toward consolidation was marked by changing prices — for both ranchers and retailers. To put it in its simplest terms, meatpacking companies buy cattle, hogs and chickens from farmers and ranchers, process the animals, and then sell the beef, pork and poultry to retailers (aka grocery stores). As these four corporations grew, they became better equipped to control the market — and the dollars — on both ends of the deal. 

Prior to the consolidation we see now, ranchers could count on getting more than 60 cents of each dollar consumers spent on beef, according to a report from the White House. Today, they’re often getting about 39 cents. In 2021, ranchers were paid $1.98 for a top sirloin steak retailing for $10.49, according to the National Farmers Union. It’s become untenable for many ranchers to simply break even. According to an Open Markets Institute report on agriculture-related monopolization, America has lost an average of 17,000 cattle operations per year since 1980.

The manipulation of the market is also felt by those scanning grocery store aisles, trying to feed their families. Last year, prices for wholesale beef increased more than 40%, and some steak cuts by more than 70%, according to the Department of Agriculture.  Grocery store food prices shot up 7.9% between February 2021 to February 2022, and are forecast to continue rising up to 4% in the next year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s the biggest annual spike that’s been seen since 1981. 

Bringing back local and regional processors and butchers to the industry creates options for buyers and sellers so prices become competitive again.

That’s where Amsterdam Meat Shop comes in.

If things don’t change for the meat industry, the country will continue to see family farms and ranches fold while being held captive in a cycle of price fixing.

In a largely Dutch community 30 minutes west of Bozeman, a windmill marks the entrance to the Amsterdam Meat Shop. Amsterdam isn’t a town as much as an area, and the shop (once a grocery store) is surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. Above the hills stretch distant mountains, the Bridgers and the Tobacco Roots. A few tall pines and old cottonwoods line the road.

Walk into the red-and-white shop today and you’ll pass corrals out front, where the animals that are scheduled to be slaughtered that day are held. Inside, a large cooler is filled with orders of beef halves and quarters awaiting pickup, alongside an offering of local organic lamb, pork shoulder, grass-fed beefsteaks and homemade Italian sausage for anyone who wants to buy it.

In the back, you’ll see Borgman — dressed in Carhartts, a T-shirt and muck boots, all hidden under a long waterproof black apron — on the “kill floor,” where animals are slaughtered, washed, butchered and prepped for the cooler.

She started at Amsterdam Meat Shop in August 2021, knowing how to process lambs and pigs, but only having done beef a few times. Now, she processes 10-11 beef cattle every Monday with the team at Amsterdam. “At first, I was intimidated,” she says. “Tom, our head butcher ... has taught me so much.”

There seems to be an unspoken understanding that the industry needs those with the skills to step up. “They just need people to work. If you’re into it, they’re going to teach you,” Borgman says.

A few miles east of the shop, 25-year-old Albert Koenig grew up on a beef ranch in Belgrade. In addition to ranching, he also works as a communications specialist for Montana Beef Council, and says the last handful of years has been “a roller coaster.” In the fall of 2020, Koenig brought a group of calves to auction and got just $1.12 a pound, losing money on the deal. “It’s difficult as a rancher who has increasing costs and weather and all those other issues to deal with, seeing that some of the big meatpacking companies are making record profits on their end. We all would like to see it be fair and be an industry where everyone can survive.”

In nearby Manhattan, Montana, third-generation rancher Lee Van Dyke, of Van Dyke Angus, has weathered years of the consolidation’s squeeze, too. “It’s tough everywhere you go,” he says. “The cost of everything has risen so dramatically and the income is staying the same. We don’t have a say. The packers are controlling everything.”

If things don’t change for the meat industry, the country will continue to see family farms and ranches fold while being held captive in a cycle of price fixing and folks getting penny-pinched in grocery stores. But only a few miles away as the crow flies, Borgman is on the kill floor, hoping to provide a sliver of that change ranchers like Van Dyke so desperately need.

“It’s hard not to feel defeated and terrified of the consolidation and the way it’s screwing people over,” she says. Anti-consolidation is the reason the Amsterdam Meat Shop is in business. In 2020, Chuck and Carol Feddes, and Jake and Alyssa Feddes (all of the same Feddes family, which has been raising cattle and producing beef in the Gallatin Valley for 95 years) bought the shop to provide area ranchers a choice other than the big corporations, with the aim of supplying locally raised, fairly priced meat to the Gallatin Valley.

From the beginning, the process of selling animals at Amsterdam Meat Shop looks different than it does at a corporate auction. Producers know what price they’re getting before they bring their animals in, or often, “they dictate the price,” Borgman says. “When we’re buying John Smith’s pigs to butcher and sell at the shop, he tells us the price per pound, and that’s when the manager decides ‘OK, we’ll take five.’” Then, Amsterdam Meat Shop can sell directly to consumers to keep costs down.

There was a time early in the pandemic when grocery store shelves were empty and consumers bought directly from local farmers and ranchers. However, most buyers who have a choice have fallen back into “normal” buying habits of picking up packaged meat products supplied by goliath companies such as Tyson and National Beef to chain grocers. Currently, the Sentience Institute, an American interdisciplinary think tank, estimates that over 70% of beef comes from factory farms. With beef, pork and poultry combined, the figure is 99%. A report by Utah State University found that 68% of the state’s consumers would prefer locally raised ground beef, but only 15% of available processing is done by small or regional meatpackers, funneling sales back to corporate meat processors.

The issue isn’t consumer behavior, however; it’s creating opportunities for smaller regional and local butchers and meat processors to come back into the picture. Koenig agrees that market options and diversity are the “key to maximizing the product and the best way to get money back into the rancher’s pockets.” Through his job at the Montana Beef Council, he aims to help create a robust market “for me, my fellow producers and hopefully our kids and grandkids to sell into.”

But how can a monopolized market break free? Since 2019, Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef have faced lawsuits filed by ranchers, grocery chains and wholesalers that alleged price fixing. JBS has already paid out numerous settlements to avoid antitrust lawsuits, including $52.5 million this February in a case that includes accusations against Cargill, National Beef and Tyson Foods, without admitting any wrongdoing. In 2021, Tyson settled several private lawsuits for $221.5 million.

While lawsuits provide one track toward equity, there are others currently at play. The Department of Justice currently has an open investigation on price fixing. Congress has recently introduced several bills aiming to increase market competition and price transparency. The USDA launched a website where producers can submit complaints about suspected antitrust violations, and is also reworking the Packers and Stockyards Act. Koenig believes that “enforcing the laws that are on the books to protect producers and markets … is a good first step.”

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In January, the Biden administration allocated $1 billion to increase independent meat and poultry processing to stimulate competition and reduce costs for consumers. To do this, the USDA is providing $375 million in grants to independent processing plants, to quickly address the issue. In June, a bipartisan bill proposing the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act, which would set minimum levels of cash-market purchases for packing companies and limit their ability to use alternative marketing formulas to set prices in advance, was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. That bill is now headed to the floor.

Even if legislative and corporate changes are on the horizon, they take time to impact the market and individuals. While producers wait for the Department of Justice to finish its two-year investigation, more family ranchers teeter at the edge of tenability and call it quits. The $1 billion in federal subsidies to grow independent meatpacking need time to trickle down to farmers and consumers.

The most important thing to do now, for the entire food chain, is to keep small businesses in operation and to provide options for ranchers and consumers — which Borgman has her sights on. “That’s why I have this job,” she says. “This is how I can contribute.”    

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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