By Evelyn Pyburn

The official status of COVID in Montana, as of last weekend was 7,063 confirmed cases and deaths hit 100 with 242,875 people having been tested. That means that of those people who have tested positive with the disease 98.6 percent have survived, but what is the survival rate of all the people who have actually contracted the disease?

The number of cases is, without doubt, much higher – maybe very much higher – even though not much is being said about it anywhere.

Given the pressures that are being brought to bear on citizens, assessments of their likely reactions should probably consider the nature of those citizens – ie. the nature of human beings. One must realize that just as much as human beings would want to avoid the negative impacts of getting the virus, so they would want to avoid the adverse impacts of “the long arm of the law.”

And, as much as the media and political blitz has served to obscure the fact that most people survive the illness, most people see beyond the programming and know that the disease is not a death sentence for most – so to become ill, if they are not in a high risk group, does not send them into a panic. And, because they do not want to deal with the county health department or be the cause of hardships for their fellow workers, friends and family, they do not get tested.

As one said, “Who wants to be responsible for putting their employer out of business? Who wants to lose their job or be responsible for putting their friends out of work?”

People with greater income security or who are unware that actions have consequences, will probably react differently, but necessity will force a more pragmatic reaction from the other half of the world, so common sense says there are more people than those being counted who have had the virus. At least one case for each official case, and the ratio is undoubtedly greater than that.

One must believe that “officialdom” knows that this is going on but say nothing about it, although County Health Officer John Felton, at one press conference, hinted that the process of contact tracing is made difficult because people do not answer the phone when they see that it is the County Health Department calling.

This too is an example of typical and natural human behavior, especially for human beings who are used to the idea that they have the right to live life on their own terms.

But that can be changed, the bureaucrats, health experts and officialdom have been heard to strategize. It’s just a matter of getting people used to it and they will eventually acquiesce, especially the young ones.

That there is resistance to the Governor’s edicts shouldn’t be surprising, but apparently the Governor himself is surprised. Whether true or not I am unsure, but I was told by one individual who was in a meeting with the Governor, that the Governor expressed surprise, saying, “It seems like there are people who are refusing to wear masks simply because I told them to.”

If he is truly surprised, then one has to conclude that his bubble has left his arrogance intact and his understanding of “commoners” exists not at all.

Whether it’s avoiding contracting a disease or having to deal with government bureaucrats, most people do what is in their best interests to do, that is why coercion was never necessary and persuasion would have worked better – but persuasion requires respecting “commoners.” That our leaders had no interest in that approach says all that needs to be said.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Things are changing because of the COVID crisis, and one of those changes — which could be good news for Montana— is the strengthening of small producers in the meat processing industry.

The unveiling of problems in the nation’s staid meat packing business, has given rise to questions and challenges regarding entrenched processes, regulations and norms. Dramatic swings in how consumers are buying meat are forcing changes which are creating pressure on politicians to adapt policies and regulations, and some of those anticipated changes will pose opportunities for the industry in Montana.

“I think we are going to have more packing plants in Montana,” says Dr. Marty Connell, who has been a participant of the industry all his life and has watched its changes over the past 55 years. Dr. Connell is a Veterinarian, an Agriculture and Financial Consultant and President of Kairos Properties LLC in Billings.

In a recent interview, Dr. Connell said that there will be changes to the industry and they will benefit Montana producers and consumers.

It’s not that pressures on the meat industry were not already building and that some changes were not already happening, but the disruption of the supply chain because of the closure of a few plants due to COVID-19 infections, revealed exactly how vulnerable the industry is and that has prompted motivation to remove bottlenecks and open avenues to allow flexibility.

Generating some excitement is a bill in Congress that will open doors to allow local state-inspected packing plants to sell products across state lines – something currently prohibited by regulations.

Another development is the establishment of a new program at Miles Community College in Miles City to train students how to cut meat— and perhaps, eventually, another aspect of the program will teach how to manage a meat packing business. The program addresses a pent-up demand in the state for meat processing that was encumbered due to a lack of skilled meat cutters.

Consumer pressure for local products and “grown organic” has created new markets and opportunities for local processors.

The mandated closure of restaurants because of COVID has generated a new interest in cooking at home, pointed out Dr. Connell. So, grocery stores experienced increased demand for meat, while restaurant meat purchases dropped dramatically, and a situation emerged in which there were shortages in one supply line and surpluses in another. A rapid transition was slowed because of regulations.

Dr. Connell said that while home cooking may retain some of its new-found interest, he believes that as soon as they can, people will return to eating-out at restaurants because of its convenience. There will be other aspects of life that will also return to ways of the past as soon as people can do so, believes Dr. Connell, but some things will change because of the COVID crisis, and one of the biggest will be a decline in confidence in bureaucrats whose recent deeds have created a “lack of credibility” among on-lookers.

Dr. Connell graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in Veterinary Medicine in 1965 and became one of 102 veterinarians in Montana who also served as Deputy State Veterinarians who were qualified to conduct inspections of meat processing facilities in the state. Dr. Connell was practicing at Glasgow. At the time there were packing plants all over the state – -almost every town had one.

The Department of Livestock was the Livestock Sanitary Board.

Montana, as did many states, had its own state inspector and process for monitoring inspecting and regulating the meat packing businesses. And then, as now, processors were not allowed to sell meat across state lines.

In the late 1960s, the State Veterinarian and Livestock Sanitary Board decided that it would be better for local processors to meet federal standards so they could sell their products across state lines and expand their small market. “That was a false assumption lobbied by employees of the large meat packers.” 

The status of Montana’s industry at the time was that livestock growers didn’t supply enough inventory and Montana’s population wasn’t great enough to consume all that was processed – a status that hasn’t changed all that much.

The State Veterinarian’s desire for Federal Inspection finally won the day but as the federal regulations were imposed, one by one, the small packing plants blinked out of existence because they could not afford to meet the federal standards. Federal standards are only affordable if the facility is processing a large volume of animals.

So rather than expanding Montana’s beef industry, they destroyed it, as was the case across the country, and the number of packing plants dwindled to just one or two megalithic facilities.

Was there influence and manipulation of the politicians and federal regulations by the “big boys” to protect themselves and eliminate widespread competition?

 Dr. Connell said that he was sure there was some of that, but the driving factor in the market, then as now, is the consumer seeking the lowest price product. The reality is a one penny price difference makes a difference in what happens in the market. Small processors do not have a large enough market to spread out their costs per unit to a degree that they can compete with larger processors or imports from Australia.

Price will continue to be the major factor in markets, believes Dr. Connell, which is why he doesn’t see internet sales being particularly successful. The price on website vendors is often four times more than a butcher and the quality is not necessarily better. The competition of the future is a business like Costco, said Dr. Connell, where they keep their prices down but maintain a good product. Ranch House Meats is another operation that has impressed Dr. Connell in how they are competing.

Whatever changes come they will be addressing the industry as a whole, because noted Dr. Connell, Montana, with a population of less than a million, has miniscule influence in Washington DC. That is one reason why the effort to require labeling of meat products as to their origin has never gained much traction in Congress.

Another factor in the regulatory squeeze, explained Dr. Connell, is that it is the nature of bureaucracy to gradually ratchet up the standards, imposing additional costs on plants. That was a problem for Montana in the recent past as small plant operators were being required to comply with demands of federal regulators that were not regulations.

But, Dr. Connell stated that over time the regulation situation on Montana packing plants has eased.

Part of the reason is that compliance has become easier due to better technology. Technology always plays a role in market changes. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, technology was a factor in how beef got to market. The emergence of refrigerated box cars allowed for the shipment of beef carcasses which was less expensive than shipping live cattle to eastern markets.

In order to overcome regulatory costs and increase the economies of scale that was beyond the small processors, Pierce Packing was built in Billings in 1906. At the time it was the largest packing plant in the country. Midland Packing was also established in Billings. Interestingly, too, is that at that time production of swine was greater in Montana than beef production, and eventually Pierce processed only pork.

Today with over 2.6 million head of cattle, the beef industry in Montana far exceeds that of hogs, of which there are only about 210,000 head.

Montana has about 20 Federally inspected meat processing plants and 39 State-inspected meat processing plants.

Pierce Packing, located on the block of 15th Street and 1st Avenue North, closed in 1984 after struggling with market ups and downs, with the final blow coming because of a PCB transformer leak into their tankage product.

Dr. Connell’s company, Kairos Properties LLC has redeveloped the plant structure into a facility that today is home to manufacturing operations, warehouses , offices and thirteen high end residential condos.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The state’s economy is in a state of “extreme fluidity”

The declaration was in response to the question, “Where are we Now and What’s Next?”

It was the theme question posed by economist Pat Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, in a virtual version of the annual program “Montana’s Economy at Mid-Year,” last week.

“We are starting to get used to where we are but where are we exactly?” posed Barkey, adding that because of the uncertainty, “We have shortened our horizons and are more concerned about next week and next month.”

“This is a situation of active management for a considerable period of time.” But, “Montanans are capable of adapting.”

Not all of the news is bad, said Barkey, explaining that much of the data they need to understand what is going on is slow in coming. “We are certainly in a second phase, he said, “In terms of economy we are grappling with the challenge. ..it is a fluid situation but we are getting more clarity.  We are looking at steep declines, strong bounce backs and persistence in going forward.”

The US Economy has “turned in one of the worst performances ever recorded.” GDP (Gross Domestic Product) dropped by 33 percent (as an annual rate).

 “You have to go all the way back to the 40s to have this kind of hit to the economy …it is of a different order of magnitude than any other decline in history.”

Despite the decline, the “bounce back in jobs and consumer spending since then has also been impressive,” said Barkey.

The current forecasts call for a 17 percent growth in GDP in the third quarter.

There is going to be some permanent changes as a result of COVID impacts.

Why did it happen? “Because consumer spending was in free fall.” Consumer spending saw a 25 percent decline in the second quarter – another fact that is without precedent, a description that Barkey conceded everyone is probably “sick of hearing.”

While data is slow in coming for updates as to the state of Montana’s economy, much about Montana’s economy is similar to other areas of the country where there is more data, which allows researchers to draw some parallels.

Data from credit card transactions in Montana, shows there was a “huge hole in spending in late March and early April – a 8 percent spending decline.

Consumer spending seems to have cratered mostly in accommodation services and health care.

At the same time, “consumer income rose and it rose strongly… primarily because of transfers from federal government.” Also, more people are saving more… the aggregate spiked from single digit to 25 percent.” Barkey further noted that “it is not just that consumers are reticent about spending, they couldn’t” – they were on lockdown and many stores were closed.

“The US forecast is very much a moving target.”  While it was a strong bounce back, it is not going to take us back to the economy of before – nor will it in Montana.

 “There is more optimism about 2020 than there was several months ago, but trends in infections is lowering expectations for 2021 and 2022.” A July revision puts more pessimism into the speed of a come back. It will take months if not years to recover.

“We are going to see very, very low interest rates for the next couple of years.”

“We are going to have negligible inflation and a weaker dollar.”

One impact of the virus that is not being talked about much is the collapse of international trade, said Barkey, which dropped by 50 percent and is one reason why some products – such as bicycle or pharmaceuticals “aren’t on the shelves.” 

There has been a huge influence by Congress and the Federal Reserve, said Barkey, going on to say that one of the best things to have happened was the rapid response in getting money dispersed to the American people and businesses. 

“The one mistake they didn’t make was to dawdle about it.”

 “I think the actions of Congress have been quite helpful, but let’s not have false hope that we can spend our way out of here.”

The extraordinary actions taken by Federal Reserve have quietly revolutionized what management of the economy means,” said Barkey, while the US is $2 trillion more dollars in debt, distribution of money to businesses and citizens “has stabilized and normalized markets.”

“It sent an extreme message that we are going to have an ordinary economy… and the panic and fear is gone in the financial markets.”

“The first quarter for Montana was pretty good, according to Barkey. Initially, “We thought we were in a recession that would be twice as large as the Great Recession.”

“Unemployment data says it is a very seismic event, but state tax collections don’t agree,” he said. The state General Fund suffered a mild revenue decline of 1.6 percent. In fact, individual income taxes had a slight increase, but other categories declined, not least of which was oil and natural gas production which declined 29.2 percent.

Some studies indicate that the economic activity across the state stabilized through June.

Business openings which fell 40 percent because of forced closures, “are returning to early March levels… we are coming close to having all businesses open.”

There’s a lot to be worried about in energy markets, said Barkey. Bakken oil production has seen a record fall. The spot price of crude oil went negative for one hour one day. All of which is important for Billings and points east.”

“Grocery store spending is amazing.” There has been a huge shift in consumer spending away from restaurants to grocery stores.

The hospitality industry, restaurants and hotels, have taken “a major hit” with spending down by 45 percent.

Housing prices haven’t changed much – “they are going up just like before the down turn.” There’s definitely “a lot of heat in the housing market.”

About people moving in great numbers to Montana, Barkey was dubious. “You have to convince me that someone who has lived in New York all their lives is going to move to Montana and be happy, in enough numbers to be significant.”

While there is much anecdotal information about the number of out-of-state vehicles seen traveling through the state, Barkey said the credit card data says they aren’t spending as much. And, he further noted that businesses that cater to tourism are not reporting booming business and many have not bothered to open for the tourist season at all.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Over the years as a reporter and learning about economics, early on I became alarmed at the rate and intrusiveness of regulations. As I came to understand the depth and breadth of regulations on business, I failed to understand, not only the acceptance of them but the often enthusiastic embracing of them, by business people, and especially by most of the organizations that represent businesses.

When asked about their biggest concerns, business people would most often, and still do, lament the impact of taxes. While understanding the obvious negativity of taxes draining away investment resources for businesses, in talking to some of the business people, I would argue that the greater threat for business in the US was the escalation of regulations, and not because of their cost — which is no small matter— but because I could so clearly see the end game of the amassing of such power. The cost of compliance in terms of dollars and cents is nothing compared to the irreplaceable value of our freedom.

I am sure that others could see it too, but so for granted did they take their freedom that they found such a day as this, incomprehensible.

Now with the emergence of a persuasive pretext in the form of COVID-19, business people are discovering the degree to which they have relinquished power to the government over their freedom to do business. So, with the ramifications becoming so obvious, while it has taken some 50 years, I can say, “I told you so.” It gives no satisfaction being able to do so.

I came to understand that most of the enthusiasm businesses often had for regulations was what they saw as a convenient means to use the power of government to inhibit potential competition. Many businesses and industries actively undermined the free market, and were often the instigators of new regulations aimed at crippling upstart newcomers, who threatened to challenge them.

As obvious as are the regulatory powers that government is now using to control and throttle business activity, I was still somewhat surprised to hear that one businessman, facing the first round of shutdowns imposed by government, and being told the government would take away the license he needed to do business if he did not comply — he actually said, “So this is how we pay for the protection against competition that we have enjoyed.”

He is surely among a very few honest enough to admit so much, because always before their justification was that regulations were for the sole purpose of “public health and safety.” Their real strategy was never discussed publically and undoubtedly many didn’t even admit it to themselves. And, needless to say, government was always an eager and enthusiastic participant in making the unholy covenants.

The current reality of our economic situation is that government has great ability to control what business people can do, primarily because of a wealth of regulatory powers, any and all of which can be whipped out at any moment, to coerce compliance from innocent citizens and an ostensibly free people, whose only crime is trying to earn a living and manage a privately held enterprise. After all, the essence of a free market is the voluntary exchange of value for value among citizens. To prohibit that is to violate the individual freedom upon which this country is based.

In selling licenses and permits and having to gain permissions from boards and agencies – even a municipal business license — such a simple voluntary exchange has been inhibited, and so arbitrarily burdened, that any idea of being in a state of freedom is an illusion which COVID has suddenly unveiled for the police state that it has become. The regulatory bureaucracy that now prevails in our country effectively controls the daily life activities of both purveyors and consumers.

And, just as that one unique observant businessman so aptly stated, this is indeed the other side of the bargain for which they sold their free souls.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The Montana Rescue Mission is proposing to build and revitalize almost a whole block of Billings on the 2800 block of Minnesota Avenue to develop a centralized “Unified Campus” to provide services to the homeless and low income.

Since part of their plans include a building in which a whole floor will be dedicated to low-income apartments, MRM in conjunction with Mountain Plains Equity Group, Inc. is applying for Low-income Tax Credits from the Montana Board of Housing.

At MRM’s request, Yellowstone County Commissioners issued a letter of support, on Tuesday. “This thoughtful approach and reaction to a ‘full service’ campus will be instrumental in breaking the cycle of homelessness in our community,” states their letter. The commissioners further commented that this is the approach to the issue of homelessness and mental health care for the most needy, for which they have been advocating.

MRM is seeking $6,477,000 which will cover about half the anticipated $12.6 million cost of developing the proposed campus. If they are successful in obtaining the funds, said Matt Lundgren, MRM Executive Director, then they will launch  a community campaign for additional support.

Lundgren said they will be counting on private donations and conventional long-term financing to complete the project which includes a 166 –bed homeless shelter, 29 affordable apartment units, and supportive services and amenities.

The plan for centralizing the services available for the needy, mentally ill, and homelesss has been in the works for two years. It’s entailed consultations with other communities who have solved similar problems with such a facility.

Referring to MRM’s past experiences, Lundgren said “We have found such a success in our programs … We know, we need to do more low income apartments.” Heavily subsidized apartments which are affordable to people working at entry level jobs, give them an opportunity to get back on their feet, he explained.

“We have a holistic approach,” explained Lundgren, “Our goal is to keep people close to the services they need. We can invite other organization and agencies to come in and provide services and  medical care.”

“Putting all things into one campus will keep our people contained.” It would include an outside space, secure and sheltered which would provide “a place for people to congregate and socialize” rather than having to wander the streets.

A child care center would also be part of the facility which would further enable parents to hold jobs. Other “wrap-around services” would include a chapel, auditorium, class rooms and a workout room.

“It would be a learning campus,” said Lundgren.

The first floor would be the location of services.

Lundgren pointed out that the building in which MRM is currently located is a hundred years old and as such has many on- going maintenance issues and remodeling needs.

Indicative of the inadequacy of the space they have, is that the current men’s shelter is “a bunch of bunks” all in one room. “There is little opportunity for social distancing – of keeping people six feet apart,” said Lundgren, emphasizing that they expect social distancing to be an on-going concern. “We don’t see an end date to this virus,” he said.

An important part of the design is to make the whole facility ADA compliant, which will enable MRM to better serve people with disabilities and unique populations.

District Court Judge Rod Souza rejected a request by the Montana Race Horse Owners and Breeders Coalition, (MRHOBC), to place an injunction against Yellowstone County to halt the demolition of the Grandstands at Metra Park.

The MRHOBC claimed that the County Commissioners did not attempt to explore the potential of placing the Grandstands on the National Register of Historic Places and that the demolition would irreparably harm horse racers and breeders.

The county rebutted that commissioners followed proper legal procedures over many months, in deciding to demolish the Grandstands. They also pointed out that the decision to demolish them was made over four months ago, during which time there was no response by MRHOBC. And, also that the county commissioners were not obligated to pursue the historical status.

Jeana Lervick, Chief In-House Counsel for the County Attorney’s office, said in the county’s rebuttal, “Plaintiff is not irreparably harmed and there is no emergency warranting the Court’s intervention.” She pointed out that Dan Fuchs, President of MRHOBC, had several times spoken to commissioners and others at public meetings about his organization’s interests and concerns. The county encouraged them to participate in an on-going planning process for the future.

On behalf of the county, Lervick asked that the court make a decision without holding a hearing.

After explaining that the court is not allowed to skip a hearing process, Judge Souza held a hearing on Friday after which he concluded that the county was acting within its authority to demolish the grandstands. He said, “…the Coalition’s interests may be met by participating in the public planning process.” Also, he stated, “As the County argued at hearing, disagreement with the Commissioners’ decision does not create a legal basis for the extraordinary remedy of injunction.”

Souza also pointed out that the Coalition was making arguments “that are not appropriate for the judiciary. . . judiciary action cannot be based on disagreement with policy decisions…Commissioners’ decision to demolish the Grandstands is a political question.”

MRHOBC is anticipating being able to finance horseracing in the future through Historical Horseracing gambling proceeds and the group hopes to resume horseracing at the Grandstands next year. It’s been nine years since there has been horseracing in Yellowstone County.

Fuchs said, after hearing the court’s decision, that the commissioners have yet to justify to taxpayers about a failure to take advantage of potential grants that are available through the historical registration process that could help refurbish the grandstands.

Lervick commented about the decision, “The Commissioners are glad to proceed with their plans and are hopeful that the Association and community will voice their hopes for what the future of MetraPark will hold.”

Miles College has been awarded the funding it needs to launch a training program for meat processors through the Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grants.

A grant for $117,397 to assist with training and educating future meat processors at Miles Community College, Miles City, was among the $7.5 million Coronavirus Relief Funds awarded to numerous meat processing businesses in the state, announced by Gov. Steve Bullock and the Montana Department of Agriculture.

The Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grant (MMPIG) program is designed to aid small and medium-sized meat processors in responding to the COVID-19 crisis through the adaptation and advancement of meat processing infrastructure and capacity in Montana.

“The impacts of COVID-19 have highlighted how fragile the nation’s supply chain can be, especially when it comes to meat processing,” said Bullock. “It’s crucial that our producers have viable options for getting their meat to market. Investing in meat processing infrastructure will help our Montana producers, strengthen local food systems, and bolster food security for Montanans in communities across the state from Plains to Circle.”

Among applicants for the funding was a collaborative effort between the Montana Meat Processors Association, Miles City Community College (MCC) and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation (MFBF) to offer a meat processing certificate / degree at the college to help meet a chronic shortage of trained meat cutters in Montana. They applied for $150,000 to get the training program going, which they expect to cost $75,000 annually to maintain.

The grant program received a great deal of interest which reflects the necessity for increased in-state meat processing capacity. Businesses received funding for equipment and infrastructure, such as additional cooler or freezer space, slaughter floor enhancements, and other business adaptation and diversification activities that will increase processing and/or storage capacity related to local meat processing.

Funding for the MMPIG was derived from the state’s allocation of federal relief dollars made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with a maximum award of $150,000. Over 60 businesses received funding.

Other recipients of grants were:

Montana Meat Processing Infrastructure Grant Recipients

 406 Processing – Great Falls, MT $120,428 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 4th Avenue Meat Market – Billings, MT $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 5D Processing – Choteau, MT $54,500 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Amsterdam Meat Shop – Belgrade, MT  $138,140 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Auggie’s Processing Plant – Broadus, MT $145,000 to assist with equipment purchases and construction of a new processing facility.

 Bainville Meats – Bainville, $144,583 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 BCH Discount Meats – Great Falls,  $87,160 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase processing capacity.

 Bear Paw Meats – Chinook, $103,585 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase processing capacity.

 Beaverhead Meats – Dillon, $90,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage capacity and upgrade waste management infrastructure and sanitization processes.

Big Sandy Meat Shop – Malta, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to achieve federal inspection certification.

 Biiluuke Strong – Hardin, $115,129 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Black Dog Farm – Livingston, $88,046 to assist with construction of a poultry processing facility.

 Butcher Block Specialties – Miles City, $100,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 C&C Meat Processing – Browning,  $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases, slaughter floor installation and facility modifications for increased cold storage and processing capacity.

 Castle Mountain Grocery – White Sulphur Springs, $149,872 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Christiaens Meats – Valier,  $33,974 to assist with equipment purchases to increase processing capacity.

 Clark Fork Custom Meats – Plains,   $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Cordova Farms – Choteau, $140,273 to assist with the purchase of a Plant in Box shipping container poultry processing facility.

 Cowboy Meat Company – Forsyth,  $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Craig’s Meat Processing – Sidney,  $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Dabucha’s Outdoors – Shelby,  $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases, slaughter floor expansion and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Diamond D Bar Processing – Geraldine,

$97,896 to assist with the equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Eastern Montana Meats – Sidney,   $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and construction of a new facility.

 Farm-to-Market Pork – Kalispell,  $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and expand processing capacity to include beef as well as pork.

 Feddes Family Meats – Manhattan,   $147,490 to assist with and equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Hilger Meats – Lewistown,  $139,711 to assist with equipment purchases, slaughter floor installation and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Judith Mountain Meats – Lewistown, $61,878 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 L and S Meat Processing – Lima,  $99,065 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 K & S Meat – Helena,   $145,830 to assist with the construction of a new facility for increased cold storage capacity and the purchase of a mobile slaughter truck for increased processing capacity.

 Lazy BK Ranch – Hamilton,   $41,900 to assist with equipment purchases and the completion of processing facility.

 Living River Farms – Stevensville,   $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases and the construction of a poultry processing facility.

 Lolo Locker – Missoula,   $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Lower Valley Processing – Kalispell,  $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 M3 Meats – Sidney, $125,259 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Matt’s Butcher Shop & Deli – Livingston,   $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Miles Community College – Miles City, Mt $117,397 to assist with training and educating Montana residents about meat processing.

 Millers Custom Processing – Red Lodge, 

$104,671 to assist with equipment purchases and facility upgrades to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Milligan Canyon Meats – Three Forks, $45,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center – Ronan,  $72,500 to assist with equipment purchases to increase processing capacity.

 Montana Marbled Meats – Polson,  $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 North American Foods of Montana – Hamilton, $115,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage capacity.

 North West Montana Veterans Stand Down – Kalispell, $63,443 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase capacity for repackaging and distributing meat donations to veterans and their families.

 Pekovitch Meats – Malta, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases, slaughter floor installation and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Pioneer Meats – Big Timber,   $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases and renovation of an existing processing facility to increase domestic animal processing and cold storage capacity.

 Powder River Meat Company – Terry,  $116,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to reopen facility.

 Project Meats – Billings ,$50,000 to assist with facility upgrades and construction of an additional facility.

 Ranchland Packing– Butte, $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Rawhide Meats – White Sulphur Springs, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Round Butte Custom Cuts – Ronan, $136,477 to assist with equipment purchases and mobile slaughter unit to increase cold storage and processing capacity. 

Ryan Grocery & Processing – Jordan, $116,939 to equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 S Ranch Meats – Hardin,$150,000 to assist with equipment purchases for a new processing facility.

 School House Meats (Missoula Schools) – Missoula, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase processing capacity.

 Superior Meats – Superior, $140,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase processing capacity.

 T and A Ranch – Cascade, $150,000 to assist with construction of a new processing facility.

 T&G Processing – Circle, $148,105 to assist with equipment purchases, slaughter floor installation and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 The Butcher Block – Great Falls, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases, slaughter floor installation and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity. 

Treasure Trail Meat Processing – Glasgow, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Triple T Specialty Meats – Glendive, $150,000 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Uncle Sweetie’s Processing – Jordan, $94,472 to assist with equipment purchases and facility modifications to increase cold storage and processing capacity.

 Vandevanter Meats – Columbia Falls,$150,000 to assist with equipment purchases to increase cold storage and processing capacity. 

Western Meat & Sausage Block – Butte, $71,201 to assist with equipment purchases to increase processing capacity.

 Western Wildlife Art Taxidermy and Processing – Forsyth, $133,500 to assist with equipment purchases to covert taxidermy storage facility to a processing facility.

By Evelyn Pyburn

So how long might everyone have to wear face masks, as has been mandated by Gov. Steve Bullock?

Until a vaccine is developed, according to County Health Officer John Felton – or until enough people get COVID-19 so as to develop “herd immunity.”

Given that the best- case scenarios regarding when a vaccine might become available is one year, so the prospect would be that face masks will be part of our daily attire for at least one year.

But there is a third possibility, quipped another government official – “until we get a new governor.” The statement reflects the controversy that swirls around the Governor’s edict.

Felton said he was well aware of the differing opinions and he knows a lot of people do not think the virus is a “big deal.” But, he said, it is a “big deal” to the families and friends of the people who have died in Yellowstone County and to those who have had to quarantine and have not been able to go to work.

Blaming the state economic shutdown, job losses and business closures on COVID-19, Felton said, “To the businesses that are now limited, they believe it is a big deal. To the millions who have lost their jobs, they think it is a big deal. And, the residents and staff of Canyon Creek and their families think it is a big deal.” Since July 6, 19 residents from Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings have died from the disease.

Those who might not believe the virus is a “big deal” are often of the opinion that the requirement to wear masks is a “back door” effort to curtail businesses without appearing to actually shut them down, since many people faced with having to wear masks will opt not go shopping. Closed businesses, and people without jobs, are viewed as negatively impacting the Trump administration, and would diminish his re-election prospects. That suspicion sets the table to make the entire issue more of a political conflict than a health issue.

Governor Bullock said, “There’s no reason this needs to be political, because COVID-19 isn’t political. Instead, this is about being a Montanan and being supportive of those around us. Montanans need to not only feel safe, but be safe to continue supporting small businesses like restaurants, breweries, clothing stores, bookshops, and more.”

Felton said that RiverStone Health (county health) “strongly supports” the Governor’s mandate that almost everyone in the state, must wear a face mask. He emphasized, that “universal masking has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of COVID.”

During a recent press conference, Felton outlined the increase in the number of cases of COVID in Yellowstone County.  The county has about a third of the 1320 active cases in the state, 458 were identified in the first 16 days of July and 256 over the next week. Many cases in 13 counties and two reservations have been linked to exposures in Yellowstone County, which Felton described as “the epicenter of the pandemic in Montana.” The spike in case numbers necessitates a need to impose greater restrictions on wearing face masks and social distancing, he said.

Given that it will take some weeks for the restrictions to take effect, Felton said, “we are looking forward to a pretty rough rest of July.”

Asked, “What happens if the numbers drop? Will the disease go away or will we always have to wear masks?”

To that Felton again described the direness of the situation, concluding we need to be prepared for the “long haul.”

“What’s the long haul?” he was asked. Until a vaccine is developed or we gain “herd immunity,” he said.  Felton explained “herd immunity,” citing a study conducted in Mississippi, which concluded that there would have to be more than 3200 positive tests a day to develop herd immunity in that state, or about 70 percent of the population. In Yellowstone County 70 percent would amount to 115,000 people.

There have been 3,475 confirmed cases of COVID-19 of the 161,408 people tested in Montana. While a shortage of available testing materials kept the number of tests done in Montana at around 300 a day, the number of tests increased to over 3,000 a day on average when tests became more available. RiverStone Health even began offering tests at no charge for people with no symptoms. The most recent testing in a day totaled 5,883.

Bullocks’ directive requires businesses, government offices and other indoor spaces open to the public to ensure that employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, and other members of the public wear a face mask that covers their mouth and nose while remaining inside these spaces. The directive also requires face coverings at organized outdoor activities of 50 or more people, where social distancing is not possible or is not observed.

The directive does not require face coverings in counties with three or fewer active cases or for children under 5.

Masks are not required while eating or drinking at businesses that sell food or drinks or during activities that make face coverings unsafe (like strenuous physical exercise or swimming), while giving speeches or performances in front of a socially distanced audience, while receiving medical care or for people with preexisting condition that would make wearing a face covering unsafe.

Many businesses are complying with the directive in posting notices that inform their patrons of the Governor’s directive, but the postings sometimes state that they will not act to enforce the restrictions. Some businesses provide masks if patrons want them. Many businesses require their employees to wear masks, but leave their customers to make that decision for themselves.

Sheriffs in 38 of Montana’s 52 counties (including Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder) have signed a letter stating that they will not enforce the Governor’s mandate because it is not a law. “The statewide face covering order is a public health directive. It is not a mandate for law enforcement to issue citations and arrest violators,” reads the letter. 

 RiverStone announced that because of a nationwide backlog at the company with which they have contracted to process tests — Quest Diagnostics — RiverStone Health will no longer provide communitywide COVID-19 testing. 

Under the guidance of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, RiverStone Health will continue to offer free testing, but only to people who are “close contacts” of someone who already tested positive or who have symptoms of COVID-19.

As of July 26, Yellowstone County has 499 active cases of COVID-19, total recovered 388; total deaths 23; total confirmed cases 910. Statewide, there are 3,475 confirmed cases, 2,104 recovered, 1,320 active cases, 62 active hospitalizations, 205 total hospitalizations, and 51 deaths. 161,408 people have been tested statewide.

By Evelyn Pyburn

There is lot’s not being said about all that is happening.

Despite what is claimed, COVID-19 is a political issue. When political power is brought to bear on any issue it is political. It becomes political in that moment.

One must remember that politics is about the use of force. When people are forced to do something against their will it is either criminal or political, because that is the essence of politics – a debate about how to apply the legalized use of force. At its root that is all it’s about as to whether government should be able to mandate the wearing of masks, closing of businesses or prohibiting the peaceful assembly of groups. Are these laws an appropriate use of force by government against innocent citizens?

Because government is nothing more than an instrument of force and because the only moral use of force is in defense of oneself and of others, the only just use of force by government, in the US, was determined to be the protection of its citizens.  Whether it is against enemies from outside or within, or whether it is about a military attack at our borders or a thief stealing a bicycle from a neighbor’s yard, the primary purpose of our government is to protect us from that illegal and immoral force.

That is why the failure of governments in cities and states where rioting is allowed to rage unabated is such an atrocious thing to witness. These are government officials who are deliberately refusing to perform their primary and most fundamental duty — the protection of innocent citizens against the use of criminal violence. What purpose do peaceable and innocent citizens have of a government that cannot carry out that one and most profound charge?

How force is being used in our society right now is what many people find perplexing. It’s not about whether or not to wear a mask, it is whether the governor should be able to wield state power to force people to wear a mask, which gives cover to local, often unelected officials, to use such authority as a cudgel to intimidate, shame, and coerce citizens. As can be seen in many cities right now the inappropriate use of force is far worse than the threat of a virus. To challenge government’s use of force is important far beyond the realm of a temporary threat of a disease, if a peaceful, thriving and content society is the goal.

Even though there is no evidence of violence in our streets, the disquiet and anxiety in communities under the lockdowns being imposed by local governments, in the name of the coronavirus, is just as real as the more overt threats seen in Seattle or Portland or Chicago.  There is no sense of peace and security in communities where people worry about being accosted about what they wear, or where their every action must be measured in terms of judgment by others, and the uncertainties of the force of law that might be brought to bear.

While there may be arguments to justify health and safety precautions regarding the coronavirus, those arguments should be made rather than bearing down with the business end of government. It is a fact, that no matter the degree that they are convinced about the reasonableness of health measures, business owners and employees are acting, not out of that conversion, but out of fear and duress. As civic leaders attempt to bully innocent hard working citizens, they create a pall of anxiety and resentment across the community. 

It’s a fact, that business owners, their employees and customers are scared about the threats that are held over them. Such angst gnaws at the soul and psyche, and its imposition is cruel and ruthless. It is only slightly less onerous to its victims than facing the more direct and visible violence of rioters in the streets. In a different form it is violence and unconducive to a free, benevolent and peaceful society.

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.