The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released an initial report about the beef packing industry.

It’s been a year since Ag Secretary, Sonny Perdue, launched an investigation into the meat packing industry amid concerns that there might be illegal manipulations or collusions going on regarding the pricing of meat products.

The initial report does not address those concerns, but evaluates the market conditions and makes recommendations for changes that might improve the industry’s vitality. USDA states that their investigation regarding the possibility of illegal market manipulations will be on-going.

In general, the agency addresses some of the problems they found and makes recommends for additional regulations and for tweaking existing regulations, which were put into place to create and sustain a concentrated market, dominated by a few large companies. A concentrated market means a market that is mostly monopolistic with only a few established companies in operation, protected by restrictions which curb potential competition and inhibits self-correcting market forces.

The USDA analysis found that a fire at Tyson Packing Plant in Holcomb, Kansas, in August 2019, which took 5 to 6 percent of the nation’s beef processing capacity off line for five months, largely contributed to earlier disparities in pricing. The fire, unfortunately, coincided with a peak demand for beef that occurs around Labor Day every year. Because the shortage pushed up the price of boxed beef, market forces kicked in and other plants were encouraged to increase production which compensated for the capacity lost at the Holcomb plant.

Even before the coronavirus, there was concerning disparities between the price of Choice boxed beef and the prices that ranchers received for fat cattle. Prior to the onset of the virus, the spread between the two price points was $67.17 per hundred pounds of meat. The gap became even wider with the impacts of the coronavirus

When many employees of packing plants began contracting COVID-19, prompting the closing of facilities, processing capacity dropped by 40 percent by the end of April. At that point, the difference in what packing companies received for boxed beef and what they paid the livestock producers for the beef was $279 per hundred pounds of beef – a whopping 300 percent above the record, set just months earlier.

As restaurants reopened and public activity returned to more normal conditions, in May the gap between the two price points began to narrow and it continues to do so.

Changes in the beef market were already in play in March due to the way consumers changed their buying habits. Stay- at –home mandates across the country prompted more people to prepare food at home which increased demand at grocery stores. As in keeping with the natural law of “supply and demand”, the increased demand pushed up those retail prices. At the same time the forced closure of restaurants, brought about a dramatic drop in demand for beef for food service companies, which are a different distribution system than that which serves grocery stores. Regulations prohibited the redirecting of the surplus beef in the service supply line, to areas of greater demand such as grocery stores, which would be expected to happen in an unrestricted market.

The USDA recommends improving transparency in pricing by imposing a regulation that would require packers to negotiate at least half of their weekly cattle needs on “the negotiated cash market” for product that is to be delivered within 14 days. The report said that when the events that led to reduced packing capacity happened “cash trade plummeted, making it difficult for industry participants to know prevailing prices.

The USDA also suggests that cattle producers do not know how to manage market risks and need government directed “risk management training.” They also point out that the Risk Management Agency’s Livestock Gross Margin and Livestock Risk Protection program can be improved to help producers manage risk.

When consumers found empty shelves in their grocery stores during the COVID panic, they turned to local small processors or tried to purchase meat directly from the farmer or rancher. The demand quickly overwhelmed the small producers, a problem the USDA suggests could be helped by offering grants to assist small meat processors to expand their businesses, which would increase competition in the overall packing industry.

The document states, “USDA further recognizes there are many discussions about reducing the burden for smaller meat processors, asserting that the high cost of compliance with Federal requirements are barriers to entry and/or survival.”

It goes on to recognize, “The current pandemic has also created a resurgence in demand for services provided by these small and very small processors, and for consumers who are interested in buying their meat more directly from the farm and ranch where it was raised… USDA is committed to working with stakeholders to balance food safety with these growing consumer preferences and growing e-commerce platforms.”
Pointing out that small producers and cooperatives often struggle to cover the mandated costs of operation, the agency reminds that there is USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant funds to provide assistance in organizing and forming co-ops.

Also, the agency sees a need to update the Packers and Stockyards Act, which regulates the industry. The report states, “Beyond rulemaking, small and medium-sized producers could also benefit from updates to the P&S Act designed to offset the impacts of operating in a concentrated industry, where the market power resides with large meatpackers. Smaller producers often find themselves to be price takers in the market for fed cattle and lack the volume of larger producers to negotiate unique and advantageous marketing agreements with large meatpackers.”

A key measure of U.S. consumer prices declined in April by the most on record as travel and apparel spending collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic, reports Bloomberg.

The core consumer-price index fell 0.4% from the prior month after a 0.1% decrease in March.  That’s the biggest drop in data back to 1957. Compared with April of last year, the core CPI rose 1.4%, the smallest annual gain since 2011.

A key measure of U.S. consumer prices declined in April by the most on record as travel and apparel spending collapsed during the coronavirus crisis.

The core consumer-price index, which excludes volatile food and fuel costs, fell 0.4% from the prior month after a 0.1% decrease in March, Labor Department figures showed Tuesday. That’s the biggest drop in data back to 1957. Compared with April of last year, the core CPI rose 1.4%, the smallest annual gain since 2011.

May 8 at 8:59 pm

Chef’s log day eleventy four, day 5 post quarantine. Parking lot is full, guests are dining 6′ apart, social distancing is being adhered to, my dining room is full, and the take away meals keep on coming. 45 days of plating in styrofoam boxes and aluminum half pans has been my method of operation. I cannot adequately express the joy to plate a meal on actual plates! To my crew that has stuck with me from day one of this pandemic, my hats off to you all. You all are the reason the HH is what it is, and continues to be! I am normally very humble, but to hear the continuous compliments, read the positive reviews, help turn your meal from sustenance into a memory, sparks not only pride but creativity. I want to keep doing right by my customers every single dish. I want today’s meal to be better than yesterday’s, and even better tomorrow. There is no manual or cheat sheet for a chef to refer to amidst a pandemic. It’s learning every second of every day what works, and what doesn’t. Sure there are failures and missed opportunities, but we are learning as we go. I can honestly say I could cook the rest of my life and never deal with another quarantine, and be just fine. However, when the murder bees flock to Billings, or they release the Carole Baskins, I am ready to deal with it! Night ‘yall.

Andrew Glynn is Chef at the High Horse Saloon and Eatery in Billings.

Could it be that a new technology that utilizes a waste material of Colstrip power plants — coal ash— can build the foundation (perhaps quite literally) of a new economy for Colstrip?

David White, CEO and co-founder of RamRock Building Systems, LLC, of Chattanooga, Tennessee, believes so and he has come to Montana to try to persuade Talen Energy, Montana regulators, and the public to take his company’s proposal seriously.

The product can be a low-cost strengthening additive to Portland cement, as well a high-quality, low-cost alternative to conventional concrete. Because the product locks up toxins in the ash at the molecular level, it becomes environmentally benign. It’s a win, win on every front.

“It effectively turns waste into wealth to the lasting economic and environmental benefit of the people of Montana and beyond,” said White. “This is a break through. It is break through chemistry…something that did not exist before…. we are doing something no one else is doing…. we can revolutionize the nation’s electric utility industry.”

RamRock first tested similar material in the US two and a half years ago, having initially been developed and commercialized by RamRock’s overseas technology partner ARC Innovations in South Africa.

White’s biggest problem seems to be that it sounds too good to be true, but since RamRock is simply importing proven technology for domestic commercialization, all they really need to do is to demonstrate how it can benefit a trillion-dollar disposal problem in the US.

White has presented his proposal to Talen Energy, a partial owner, and the operator of Colstrip generators 3 and 4, which may otherwise close within the next five years. Talen Energy is responsible for determining how they will mitigate the environmental threat of the residual coal ash of which there are, according to DEQ, some 15 million tons, not counting perhaps 20 million more tons from the older, now-defunct units, Colstrip generators 1 and 2.

Disposing of those wastes onsite will cost between $400 million and $700 million for units 3 and 4 alone, and several times that if it is determined that that waste and the waste from units 1 and 2, must be removed for burial in lined landfills.

The closed J. E. Corette Power Plant in Billings is also a likely beneficiary of White’s new technology. The plant was where two local political candidates made a public announcement a couple weeks ago, heralding the product’s potential benefits.

Public Service Commissioner Tony O’Donnell and state Rep. Rodney Garcia, both of whom are in re-election campaigns, held a press conference trying to gin up public support for the idea and for their campaigns.

O’Donnell said it is not only an opportunity to clean up a toxic waste site but a public relations coup for Talen Energy in being able to claim credit and help generate sorely needed jobs for the Colstrip area.

For RamRock the press conference was an opportunity to generate public support.

White first contacted Rep. Garcia during the state legislative session when Garcia was trying to convince legislators that the state should buy the Colstrip Power Plant. Press coverage made White aware of Garcia and of the problems confronting Montana in the possibility of losing jobs and the economic base that comes from energy generation at Colstrip.

DEQ must approve the idea for Talen Energy to act upon it, since DEQ has oversight on how the ash is disposed of.

White has been in conversations with DEQ officials since a visit to Montana with ARC Innovations last July. His company is presently preparing the documentation for a Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) by DEQ before the month is out.  Meanwhile, RamRock remains in discussions with Talen Energy regarding a demonstration project that White hopes will “carry the day” for his company’s “cutting-edge, economic development initiative.”

White makes clear that the product needs no research and development funding, as the proposed demonstration is just that — preliminary testing on Colstrip ash to demonstrate that it has compression strength in excess of 6,200 PSI in a mere 7 days.

At that strength the product is well beyond that needed for conventional concrete, said White. And, it is perfect for the all-concrete home and related construction that RamRock is pioneering in association with ARC Innovations.

A demonstration video shows the product being made simply and quickly using nothing more than a bowl and a stick —- mixing the coal ash with a couple of proprietary liquids and pouring the fluid into a plastic container. In about 29 minutes, sitting at room temperature, the fluid is no longer fluid and in an hour and a half it can be removed from its mold and is “as hard as a rock” – and maybe more so.

RamRock’s Colstrip initiative is based on a preliminary proposal submitted to the US Department of Energy last year for a “Zero emissions approach to all solids, liquids, and gases, including CO2” and its use, among other things, in feeding an onsite indoor farming complex which would provide “year-round, 24/7, fresh, organic, fruits and vegetable.”

“We have the technology,” says White, “and repurposing the money that will otherwise be spent to either cover Colstrip’s coal ash problem up or move it elsewhere is all that really stands between embracing the future and turning our back on it.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao announced that the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will award $1.187 billion in airport safety and infrastructure grants. The total includes $731 million in Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants and an additional $455 million in Supplemental Discretionary grants. The money will be available for 100 percent of the eligible costs under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“This Federal investment of over $1 billion represents the Department’s continued commitment to the safety and efficiency of our nation’s airports for the traveling public,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

 A complete listing of grants (PDF) and an interactive map of airports receiving funding is available on the FAA website. Montana has received about $15 million and in this award will receive a total of $7.7 million.   Billings Logan International Airport will receive $255,410  to reconfigure the runway;  $ 2,117,366  to expand the terminal and $663,063                            to acquire land for approaches.

 “The 439 grants will ensure that airport sponsors can make the necessary improvements so their airports can operate in a safe and efficient manner for years to come,” said FAA Administrator Stephen M. Dickson

By Cary Hegreberg, President/CEO of the Montana Bankers Association

Montana’s banking industry is strong, well-capitalized, and stands ready to help consumers and small businesses weather the economic crisis caused by a pandemic that is forcing people out of work and many small businesses to temporarily close their doors.  Community banks throughout Montana have stood the test of time, serving people and businesses with federally insured deposit accounts, loans and financial services. That commitment has not wavered.

The Montana Bankers Association, through our national affiliate the American Bankers Association, is working hourly with Congress, state and federal regulatory agencies, the Small Business Administration, and other entities to assure that consumers and small businesses impacted by the Coronavirus will have continued access to credit and other financial services.  Federal regulators have been extremely empathetic and proactive in recognizing that many individuals and businesses, through no fault of their own, will be unable to make scheduled loan payments. 

At this moment, the SBA is rushing to find ways of immediately infusing cash into the hands of business owners so they can retain employees and meet financial obligations.  Regulators are giving banks latitude to restructure loans, and provide other relief measures for borrowers, as long as sound lending principles are applied.  We encourage those who anticipate difficulty making timely loan payments to contact your banker as soon as possible to discuss options.  The sooner discussions begin, the more options will be available.

Like any business, a bank’s first concern is for the health and safety of its employees and customers.  In some cases, banks may temporarily close branch lobbies, but leave drive-through services and ATMs open.  Remote, internet banking services will continue to serve the needs of many customers.  Elderly people requiring personal banking services, but concerned about vulnerability, are urged to call the branch manager and request an appointment, with extraordinary precautions taken prior to arrival.

Montana’s community banks take their commitment and obligation to the people and businesses in their communities very seriously, and our industry will do everything in our power to provide the financial services needed for local economies to function and to prosper in the future.  The Montana Bankers Association also wants to remind Montanans that every bank in Montana insures deposits through the Federal Depository Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which oversees the safety and soundness of banks throughout the U.S. The safest place in the world for your money is your local bank.

By Dan McCaleb, Center Square

The U.S. House  approved a historic $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that will send billions of dollars directly to Americans and provide hundreds of billions more for businesses, health care systems and others impacted by the pandemic that has crippled the economy.

It is by far the largest relief package in the nation’s history.

The voice vote was overwhelmingly in favor of passage. U.S. Rep. Thomas Massey of Kentucky requested an official roll call, but he was overruled. No official roll call was taken.

The measure passed 96-0 in the Senate, before going on to the President for his signature.

The stimulus package includes $250 billion in direct payments to Americans depending on their income, $250 billion in expanded unemployment insurance benefits, $350 billion in guaranteed small business loans and $500 billion in loans for businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic.

It also includes $140 billion for hospitals and other health care providers.

Assuming Trump’s signature, the legislation will provide payments of $1,200 to each adult and $500 to each child younger than 17, depending on a household’s 2019 income. A married couple with children could receive up to $3,400.

The payments start to phase out for individuals with an income of $75,000 or more, or an income of $150,000 for couples filing jointly. Individuals making more than $99,000 or couples earning more than $198,000 would not be eligible.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for the Trump administration to send the payments to individuals and families electronically to speed the process. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said most people will get their payments within three weeks.

The unemployment enhancements will send an extra $600 a week for up to four months in addition to state unemployment benefits. Nearly 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims last week, a record number as businesses considered nonessential were forced to shut down to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Self employed individuals, including freelancers and gig workers such as Uber drivers, will be elligible.

Another $500 billion in loans will be made available to struggling governments and industries including airlines, states and cities. Airlines will receive $29 billion in grants and $29 billion in loans and loan guarantees.

Payment on student loans held by the federal government will be suspended until Sept. 30.

The legislation also places a 120-day moratorium on evictions for renters whose landlords have mortgages backed by federal agencies.

Critics say the package includes unnecessary pork spending unrelated to the coronavirus, including $25 million would still be allocated for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Pelosi said this will not be the final congressional response to the crisis.

Nearly 3.3 million Americans filed unemployment claims last week, a record number as businesses were forced to shut down by state and local governments across the U.S. to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

President Donald Trump said he wanted the U.S. to reopen by Easter Sunday, which is April 12. With the U.S. surpassing 1,000 deaths and nearing 81,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, many health officials said that would be too early. But Trump reiterated during a press conference that the country can’t stay closed for long.

From Center Square

Earning a salary of $100,000 a year is a major financial milestone for many Americans. The good news is that with steadily rising wages and increasing demand for skilled jobs, the goal of earning a six-figure salary is more attainable than ever before.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the percentage of individuals with a total income of $100,000 or more per year (in 2018 dollars) has increased dramatically. While only 3.5 percent of earners in 1980 had the equivalent of a six-figure salary, that number rose to over 11 percent in 2018. This upward trend closely follows the trend in mean individual income over the same period. Nationwide, the mean annual income was $50,413 in 2018 for all individuals ages 15 and over.

The share of high-paying jobs is expected to increase significantly over the next 10 years, especially due to increased demand in the healthcare, management, and technology industries. The average projected employment growth rate across all occupations for the period 2018-2028 is 5.2 percent, but occupations with a mean annual pay of $100,000 or more are expected to increase twice as fast, at almost 10 percent. High-paying healthcare jobs, in particular, will expand rapidly as an aging population requires increased medical care.

Jobs that are most frequently attaining this goal are CEO’s, college health specialties teachers,  Health Specialties Teachers, marketing managers, construction managers, administrative services managers, pharmacists, medical and health services managers, sales managers, computer and information systems managers, financial managers, lawyers, physicians and surgeons, software developers and programmers, general and operations managers.

Blue Dog RV has opened on U.S. 2 East in Kalispell. The business offers a wide selection of vehicles and a full-service RV repair shop. The Kalispell store is the 16th Blue Dog dealership in the Western U.S. and the first in Montana. The business is opening in the former home of Pierce RV. Blue Dog RV, is locatred at 3138 U.S. 2 East.

The city of Whitefish is exploring options for its recycling site currently located on the city-owned snow lot.  The city in 2016 consolidated its recycling into one centralized site at the snow lot after closing several satellite recycling locations.

The Green Party has qualified to have candidates on the 2020 ballot in Montana. Signature gatherers turned in more than 11,000 signatures in Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Silver Bow and Yellowstone counties before the March 2 deadline. Enough were accepted to meet the minimum qualification requirements. Club For Growth Action, a conservative political action committee that supports state Auditor Matt Rosendale in his U.S. House race, filed paperwork in February to allow it to spend money to qualify the Green Party for the ballot. However a spokesperson stated that they had changed their minds after learning someone else had undertaken the effort. No other organization had filed paperwork with the Commissioner of Political Practices. Any spending would have to be reported by April 15.

Despite a dry November and December, snowpack totals in river basins across Montana have improved and are near to above normal for this time of year. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Water Supply Outlook progress has been made due to normal to record-setting snowfall in February in mountain ranges that supply water to regional rivers and streams. Statewide, precipitation levels were 137% of normal, compared to 93% of normal around the same time last year.

Hobby Lobby has announced an opening date of mid-May 2020 for its new Bozeman store. The arts-and-crafts business originally announced plans to open in March 2019. Hobby Lobby will hire between 35 and 50 people and pay $15.70 for full-time employees and $10.45 for part-time.

As the amount of Bakken gas production has increased, future BTU limits on the Northern Border pipeline have become more likely. That is what is prompting a proposal for an alternative, high-BTU gas market in the Williams-Mountrail County region. Liberty Midstream Solutions is proposing a 4.7 mile, 8-inch residue pipeline on privately owned lands in the area to take high-BTU residuals to an existing third-party line, from where it could be sent to markets in Chicago.

Construction has been completed on Montana Craft Malt, a facility near Butte that will produce 10,000 tons of malt per year from Montana-grown barley. Montana Craft Malt plans to tap into barley grown in Montana and supply specialty malt to the brewing industry in Montana and elsewhere. The U.S. Craft Brewers Association reports that revenue continues to grow in the industry and in 2018, grew to $27.6 billion. Craft beer now has a 24% dollar share of the U.S. beer market, state officials said in a news release. In Montana, 92 breweries are operating with four new breweries in planning as of January.

A 65,000-square-foot, four-story hotel will be one of the first buildings to be built in the Yellowstone Airport Plaza. in Belgarde. The former gravel pit that will be transformed into a mixed-use site with hotels, restaurants and other businesses. The investment and development division of Energy Real Estate Solutions (ERES) announced its plans to build the 120-room hotel recently.

Oil and gas prices plunged more than 30 percent recently. As Russia and Iran disagreed on pricing and production levels. This led to OPEC’s cutting its China crude oil price by $6 to $7 per barrel and ramping up its crude oil production by 2 million barrels per day. The sell-off was the biggest one-day drop since 1991 and the Gulf War.

Continental Oil will ramp up its activity in the Bakken for 2020, running nine rigs instead of six, in an oil reserve Continental’s founder and Executive Director Harold Hamm has said is the best in the country.

Continental’s Bakken crude oil production grew 14 percent year over year, while its gas capture exceeded 90 percent, according to figures presented by Continental executives during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call. That was despite spending 60 percent of its 2019 capex budget in Oklahoma.

In order to address the shortage of pilots across the country, an Air Force-funded program the Civil Air Patrol in Gallatin County is sponsoring a training program for about 30 cadets called the  Gallatin Composite Squadron. Cadets are between the ages of 12 and 18.

Collette Hanson, Helena, who has worked at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana for 35 years, has been named president of the organization.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the nation’s leading small business advocacy organization, announced that Brad Close has been selected by the board of directors as the organization’s president. Close has been serving as Acting President since December and has been with NFIB for more than 18 years. NFIB is an organization of business owners who annually determine the organization’s positions and goals by a survey of members.

Aaron Whitten has been appointed general manager of the new Kimpton Armory Hotel Bozeman. The property is the first Kimpton in Montana and is slated to open spring 2020. The 122-room hotel is located one block off of Main Street in the historic 1941 National Guard Armory building. It includes three dining venues and a music hall.

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided another $1.1 million in funding for HUD’s new Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) Initiative. Ten housing authorities will receive this funding, continuing HUD’s efforts to assist young adults transitioning out of foster care. In January, HUD awarded nearly $500,000 to the FYI Initiative and an additional $260,000 in February

Mild winter weather in the Bakken has created an unusual uptick in January’s jobs report. Williston’s Job Service saw 1,185 openings for the month. Construction and extraction work rose 40 percent while CDL transportation careers remain number one with a 20 percent increase. Out-of-state workers continue to move to the area as the average wage remains strong at $27 an hour.

Rian Nelson has opened Big Sky Bakery and Coffeehouse at 110 N. Central Ave., in front of the Magic Mirror building, Sidney.

Demolition began to make room for a new Town Pump in Uptown Butte. The new Town Pump will replace the Town Pump currently located at the intersection of Montana and Platinum Streets in Uptown. Jim’s Corner Bar was demolished to make room for the new gas station and convenience store. The new store will have an expanded deli, new gas islands and better according to Town Pump’s Director of Corporate Communications, Bill McGladdery.


When it comes to how much income taxes Montana collects per capita, it ranks 24th highest in the nation collecting $ 1,119 for the most recent year in which there is data.

The individual income tax is one of the most significant sources of revenue for state and local governments, states The Tax Foundation.

In fiscal year 2017, individual income taxes generated 23.3 percent of state and local tax collections, right behind general sales taxes (23.6 percent).

On average, state and local governments collected $1,198 per capita in individual income taxes, but collections varied widely from state to state, a function of both rate structures and income distributions, with higher-income states generating significantly more revenue per capita whether they have a high graduated rate system, like California, or a modest flat-rate income tax like Massachusetts.

New York ($2,877), the District of Columbia ($2,815), Maryland ($2,390), Connecticut ($2,227), Massachusetts ($2,145), and California ($2,137) came in with the top five collections per capita. Tennessee ($37) and New Hampshire ($49) tax investment income but not wage income, making them the states with the lowest individual income tax collections per capita. Of the states that tax wage income, the lowest collections per capita in fiscal year 2017 can be found in North Dakota ($423), Arizona ($489), Mississippi ($614), Louisiana ($632), and New Mexico ($640).