To put it bluntly, the COVID-19 pandemic has created extreme challenges for ranchers and farmers across the nation. The closure of schools, restaurants, sporting events, theme parks, and hotels forced farmers to collectively discard millions of pounds of fresh goods intended for these businesses that they could no longer sell to. For ranchers, the health crisis has disrupted the supply chain: processing plants shut down, ranchers have less of a market for their animals, and the outbreak disabled them from going to livestock auctions in-person. Milk, food, and beef intended for sporting events or restaurants cannot be repurposed for consumers and sent to grocery stores as the packaging and processing differs significantly. Farmers and ranchers could only donate so much to food banks and charities due to the cost associated with transporting food along with limited refrigerated storage at charitable facilities. So while consumers panicked at the possibility of empty grocery store shelves and increased meat prices, farmers had to endure the staggering surplus of perishable food and ranchers could not sell their beef or were selling it at a loss. And the uncertainty of long-term damage is a real concern for America’s essential food producers.
Businesses that were thriving six months ago may no longer have the resources to reopen. The public may not return to cruise lines. Restaurants and convention centers may not seat the same number of people. All of this creates uncertainty for every link in the food supply chain.
But people need to eat. So our country’s ranchers and farmers continue working to make that happen, getting creative and adapting to ensure they continue feeding America. Among those ensuring our nation’s food supply are the Reyonlds, Brown, and Skoglund families—local ranchers and farmers out of Montana, a state where more than 60% of the land is used for agriculture and ranching.
Butch and Josh Reynolds, Triangle Ranches
Seventh-generation ranchers and fifth-generation rodeo athletes, father and son Butch and Josh Reynolds run their cattle ranch, Triangle Ranches, in Eastern Montana, 50 miles away from the next town. With a healthy herd of 250 head, the Reynolds produce Red Angus beef which is heavily sought after for its high quality, tenderness, and flavor. They are facing today’s ranching challenges with a razor-sharp focus, waiting until October to sell due to the current low prices, and hoping they can sell direct to consumer soon so the processors do not have as much control and the prices can go up for the ranchers.
“Some ranches are going out of business. The neighbors are getting concerned; there’s been a lot of talk. I see a lot of increased prices and laid-off workers.” - Josh Reynolds
“COVID-19 is a lot like the Depression; hard times for a lot of people. Prices are really low. But right now, we still have grass so the outlook is a little better. In the 1980s, my grandfather lost his farm, and then had to buy it back. I guess some things don’t change. Low prices certainly make it harder.” - Josh Reynolds
The Brown Family, Amaltheia Organic Dairy
Located next to the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman, Montana and run by Sue, Melvyn, and their children Nate and Sarah, Amaltheia Organic Dairy is a sustainable, Certified Organic farm that produces organic whey-fed pork, organic vegetables and herbs, handcrafted goat-cheese, and eggs. Roughly half of their business is supplying to restaurants, so they were suddenly hit hard when the restaurants closed. To counter this, the Browns got creative and started On-Farm Markets—bringing people on the farm to buy products—of produce, plants, and cheese where people visited their farm outdoors wearing face coverings. They also started donating 100 pounds of cheese weekly to the local Food Bank and discounted their products to stores to help unemployed consumers eat good food.
“If restaurants continue to fall on tough times, it will continue to be hard. But right now, we are preparing ourselves with our distributors all around the U.S. and it will be a wait-and-see.” - Sue Brown
“The good thing about our farm is that we are diverse. If one aspect fails, the other prospers. Having organically grown pork in small quantities is an asset right now. I believe more people are looking for good food right now and that is what we produce.” - Sue Brown
“With the pandemic as it is and future problems exposed, we’re starting to see the large dairies, large profit-driven farms taking a hit. That brings us back to the smaller farms supported by the community. Like us. We stayed open during the pandemic because we are an essential dairy producer. On a smaller scale, we can control more things. That’s a big advantage and we’re shielded more from where some of the nation is going. Communities helping the farmers. We’re thankful for it.” - Sue Brown
Matt and Sarah Skoglund, North Bridger Bison
Owners and ranchers of 160 head, Matt, Sarah, and their children run their Bison ranch, North Bridger Bison, and provide humanely field-harvested meat. The Skoglund family utilizes Holistic Management and Regenerative Agriculture principles where their Bison help reduce climate change through carbon storage in the soil. As stewards of the land, they move their Bison from pasture to pasture to prevent overgrazing, mirroring the patterns of how Bison historically grazed the West. This way, the benefits return to the land—improved grass, restored topsoil, minimized erosion, increased wildflowers, more butterflies, cleaner water, and ultimately a better Bison steak. The Skoglunds sell directly to consumers, so during this pandemic more people have searched them out to purchase Bison meat directly. Today’s ranching challenges have required them to be more flexible, more nimble, and maintain a great relationship with their regional processor to fill the increasing orders.
“As far as long-term challenges caused by COVID-19 go, I definitely anticipate a shortage of meat processors. The silver lining is more people will be buying directly from ranchers and producers, which is increasing the demand for more local processors. It will be harder to get more meat processed.” - Matt Skoglund
“COVID-19 has shown how fragile our current food system has become. In an attempt to produce cheap food at all costs, we’ve created, in my opinion, a flawed system. Consolidation and control of large companies has made the system fragile. So the average consumer can seek out, find, and buy directly from local ranchers and local butcher shops which sell from local sources.” - Matt Skoglund