Ranch House Meats Buys Packing Plant
By Evelyn Pyburn
The owners of Ranch House Meats and S & T Project Meats, Shane and Tanya Flowers, have purchased Quality Meats of Montana in Miles City in order to facilitate an expansion of their business.
They will rename the Miles City business Pure Montana Meats.
Since the Miles City facility, which has been in business since 1946, is a federal USDA inspected plant, it “helps us get more beef out there to consumers sooner,” said Flowers. While the Shepherd plant at 6608 Highway 312, is a state inspected facility, the Flowers are working on meeting federal requirements at that plant and making it a USDA inspected facility, as well, which will enable them to broaden their marketing area.
They want to increase their distribution area and to up their on-line sales, which at present are minimal, due primarily to the fact that plants that are not federally inspected are currently not allowed to ship product across state lines. That restriction holds the prospect of changing with a bill that is making its way through the US Congress that would allow movement across state lines of meat products coming from state inspected facilities – the Flowers are not waiting.
There will be a total separation of the operations of the Miles City and Shepherd plants, said Flowers. Animals will be harvested and processed in Miles City and shipped to Shepherd to make the retail products, including the jerky and bacon for which the company has become so well-known – and a lot of hamburger. Acquisition of Pure Montana Meats brings another whole new product line to their business including Custer Steak Strips and a popular cube steak.
Both facilities are undergoing some redesign and remodeling to better fit their needs and to keep them appearing fresh and professional. Flowers said that each will have a re-grand opening when the remodeling is complete.
The purchase dovetails with a lot of changes that are occurring in their industry. The recent market disruptions of the meat industry brought about by impacts of COVID-19 boosted retail sales for Project Meats and Ranch House Meat by 400 percent. After two months, the sales dropped gains to a more manageable 250 percent, says Shane Flowers, but the experience introduced a lot of new customers to their business which was already starting to burst at the seams.
Earlier this year, the company moved Ranch House Meats in Billings from Grand Avenue to 3203 Henesta, off King Avenue. The move was a good one, said Flowers, in that it has generated a lot more business.
Flowers notes that the phenomenon of the COVID impact was industry wide; most meat processing facilities in the state and in other states experienced increased sales as consumers found empty grocery store shelves and started looking for local providers. The COVID virus unveiled the precarious nature of a meat processing supply chain in the US which is very narrow, concentrated in the hands of a few large processors, which had to shut down when many of their workers contracted the disease and social distancing became necessary. Past restraints on the industry had diminished the number of alternative processors.
In some respects the consumer shift was good for small meat processing facilities because it brought awareness and an appreciation by consumers for what they do, said Flowers, but it was very frustrating for the industry in general. While meat prices were very high at the grocery stores, the producers were getting very low prices, dealing with a glut of product. They also were unable to get their meat processed because of a lack of facilities able to do so.
During that period, Flowers said that they tried hard to keep their prices low, while offering the local ranchers higher prices than they were getting elsewhere in the market.
Flowers expects the COVID boost to encourage, even more so, what has been a strong trend among consumers to buy local. The trend has contributed greatly to the young couple’s business, which has steadily grown since they began in 2007. The recent market upheaval brought consumer attention to the meat industry’s problems, and with that insight Flowers believes many more will shift their support to local processors.
There is a shortage of local processors in Montana, one that has been evident for quite some time. Producers and wholesale purchasers of meat are finding longer and longer wait periods to get their animals processed.
“There is a demand for custom processing,” said Flowers, noting that they will not be doing much of that. Their business model is taking them in a different direction, selling retail products to consumers, restaurants and grocery stores.
The processing backlog is in part due to a shortage of trained and skilled workers, a problem with which the Flowers will be contending as they expect to be hiring more people for both their Shepherd and Miles City operations.
Flowers is very supportive of the recent news that Miles City Community College hopes to be able to offer, this fall, a program to train meat cutters. Being located in Miles City he is hoping that they can participate in some manner with the program. But, said Flowers, he is willing, as an employer, to train people on the job.
In total, the Flowers employ 35 people, and plan to be hiring as many as ten more in Miles City, and a few more in Shepherd, as their businesses get into full production and begin to grow.