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.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Plans are continuing for Montana Fair, despite coronavirus social distancing constraints.

But rather than just nine days of fair, from August 7 through 15, there may be twelve days of fair with the addition of pre-fair dates, July 31 to August 2.

Details, issues and potential solutions were discussed by Metra Park Manager Bill Dutcher, Assistant Manager Tim Goodridge and Marketing Director Ray Massie, with Yellowstone County Commissioners. Commissioners asked the Metra Park team to bring them updates every Monday.

Commissioner Denis Pitman said that as the commissioners talk to constituents they are being asked questions and they need to know answers. Most of the feedback commissioners are getting about holding the fair, however, is very positive and people want to see the “show go on.”

Whether Montana Fair, like many other events in the state, will be held became questionable given the threat of COVID-19 and quarantines, business closures, travel restrictions, and the enforcement by state and county officials of social distancing regulations and other health measures that have curtailed the free movement of citizens. Many events, including other fairs, concerts, races, and sport events have been cancelled.

But with the State now in Phase 2 of reopening businesses and with the relaxation of “stay at home” restrictions and with the number of COVID-19 cases in decline, Montana Fair officials and county commissioners have been working on ways in which they can still hold the fair, even if it means doing so on a smaller scale.

Dutcher said, “We have been working at it every day, Monday through Friday.” They were encouraged with the success of holding high school graduation ceremonies last weekend, he said.

Dutcher said that they have been “listening to people in the community,” and of course conferring with Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton for guidance and direction. “We are talking about open air and a lot of distancing.” Metra Park has four million square feet of open space.

“Nobody minds that we are cutting back,” he said. Roughly speaking they are estimating a fair doing about 40 percent of the business of a normal fair.

Goodridge said that the “point of no return” about holding the fair was June 1, and they made the decision to move forward when they received the commissioners’ commitment to support the Junior Livestock Show with $150,000.

That will be the biggest cost involved in putting on the fair, since there will be no concerts to fund. Concerts have always been the biggest cost and most often they generated little if any revenue for Metra Park.

So without night shows, this year, the fair will include the Junior Livestock Show, food vendors and the carnival. Food vendors and the carnival hold little risk of loss, said Dutcher. In fact, they are almost certain to generate revenue streams since Metra Park gets a percentage of all their sales.

About 4200 visitors are being planned for each fair day. Counters will keep track of the numbers coming and going. Adding the extra days allows them to spread the number of fair -goers out. “We are flattening the curve, too,” joked Goodridge, to which Commissioner Don Jones replied, “Let’s say we are ahead of the curve.”

With all the space and distancing and reduced number of fair- goers there will be no lines, “You won’t have to wait for carnival rides or cotton candy.”

Metra Park comptroller, Kelly Campbell said that they have worked and reworked the numbers and believe that they will break even at about $620,000. “No guarantees,” she said.

Ostlund predicted, “I think you will be pleasantly surprised.”

One benefit of scaling back means that expenses will also be scaled back. Besides not having to pay for the shows – a cost of about $900,000 — labor costs will also be less, since producing the shows is what usually requires most of the labor.

We controlled the margins of expenses,” said Massie. They will be losing about $130,000 in sponsorships, according to Massie, but they aren’t going to have to spend as much in marketing, “which is usually another big expense.”

Advance sales of value passes will probably have to be refunded, but that amounts to only about $13,000.

Pitman said that one of his concerns is the risk of liability. In discussing the issue with the Montana Association of Counties, he said, that was their primary concern. He said that they reminded him that the county was “on the hook” for the first $250,000 for every liability claim. He asked Jeana Lervick, Chief In-House Counsel for the Civil Division of the County Attorney’s Office, what the county’s liability exposure could be.

Lervick explained that the “health officer is there to provide guidance .. if we don’t follow that opinion, we are going to have to explain why, if there is problems.” She said any liability claim would have to demonstrate that the county was negligent.

“How do we make it happen as safe as possible? We are consciously looking at everything to make it as safe as possible,” said Pitman, adding to the staff, “I think you have reduced the risks of a lot of events. That takes away a lot of risk.”

Ostlund said, “There is a little risk in everything. If you go to Costco or to Walmart or go out to dinner. In my opinion we have a commitment to the public to put this on.”

“There is a commitment and there is also a risk,” said Pitman.

Fair administrators are talking a lot with other fair and event promoters in the state. Dutcher noted that there are quite a number of other county fairs moving forward in the state, and they will be taking note of how those events unfold. He said that while Montana Fair in Great Falls was cancelled, the two events are not comparable nor are the situations and staffing. They are quite different, said Dutcher.

Goodridge added, “We are providing leadership that the rest of the state is looking for. They are asking us, what are you going to do? How are you going to do it?”

Ostlund commented that “part of our mission is the economic increment of a lot of people coming to town and doing business at the hotels and motels and restaurants.”

“People are looking forward to it,” said Goodridge, adding that it is good for the moral of Metra Park and of the county.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The US Department of Justice is taking the concerns about distorted cattle prices seriously, and an investigation is underway, according to the President of Montana Stockgrowers  Association, Fred Wacker. Wacker in discussing Montana’s beef market with the Yellowstone County News, said he has had recent contact with the Department of Justice, and while he is confident that the matter is being pursued he is not authorized to discuss details.

In an interview, Wacker not only commented on the status of the investigation, but explained the status of the cattle market in Montana and how it has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis – a very important issue to Montana since the cattle industry is the state’s largest industry, according to Wacker. When the cattle market struggles, the state struggles.

Hopefully, the worst of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the industry is over, according to local cattle buyer, Brian Okragly, Billings, who reported that the number of cattle being slaughtered weekly, is once again on the rise, after plummeting with the closure of the packing plants. Beef prices, too, are coming back into alignment, he said, in an interview with Yellowstone County News.

Okragly is a licensed and bonded cattle dealer, who has spent the past 27 years buying and selling feeder calves, yearlings and finished cattle.

Besides his leadership role in the Montana Stockgrowers Assoc., Wacker raises black and red Angus cattle in the Miles City area on the Cross Four Ranch. His cattle are non-hormone and non-antibiotic grown to serve outlets such as Whole Foods. Much of what he raises is sold to Europe, Japan and China.

“We raise cows and calves!” he stated. And, Montana raises the best cattle. “They are sought after,” said Wacker, “Buyers drive through four and five states to get them”

Montana’s Attorney General Tim Fox, along with AGs from 21 other states sent a letter in early May to US Attorney General William Barr, to request an antitrust investigation of the beef processing industry to determine if the packing companies have entered into agreements that thwart competitive bidding. The beef packing business in the US is dominated by four major companies.

Puzzling everyone was why cattle prices were so low for ranchers but are at record high levels at the grocery counters. In simple terms, as explained by Wacker, “We are getting $1.90 pound, but the packer is getting $4.65 per pound. ..We feel it is Ok for packers making $300, but when it is double and three times that; it is very excessive.”

The rancher typically hopes to make about $50 to $100 profit per head.

“We don’t think there is enough cattle being bartered,” Wacker said, “That’s what makes it a market.”

Another aspect of what’s happening in the cattle market is the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, which have created shortages in the retail beef supply, which are alarming consumers. Besides meat prices in the grocery stores being at all -time highs, the shelves are often empty, and signs are commonly posted limiting the amount of meat the customer can buy.

To some extent the shortages reflect deeper problems within the industry. Beef packing plant closures have squeezed narrow supply lines and unveiled weaknesses of the highly regulated and concentrated beef industry.

It’s not just beef that has been impacted by plant closures. The coronavirus caused the closure of chicken and pork meatpackers and other food processing plants, as an estimated 12,000 plant workers tested positive for the disease and 48 workers died. Other workers went on strike, concerned about working conditions.

As of April 28, according to Bloomberg, processing plant shutdowns wiped out a quarter of the nation’s pork-processing capability and 10% of that for beef.

As the plants closed so did the processing of fat cattle – animals ready for slaughter and distribution to grocery stores and restaurants.

Before the COVID-19 virus hit, the industry was experiencing record kills nationwide of about 650,000 a week, according to Okragly. “We were looking really good,” he said, “The futures market looked good.” As COVID-19 hit workers and forced plant closures, the slaughter number dropped 200,000 animals a week – down to 450,000, and the futures market dropped 25 to 30 percent.

The reduction in the number of animals being processed, began a backlog of fat cattle and then of feeder calves, and on down the supply chain to the ranchers’ rangeland.

Not liking the prices they were being offered ranchers began deferring sales. There were reports that some producers – of cattle, pigs and chickens —  were having to euthanize animals because of no ability to place them, or feed to feed them.

With most packing plants now open and kill numbers coming back to 600,000—“almost at full capacity,” things seem to be improving, but “We are going to have backlog down the road. What that will do to feeder cattle this fall is uncertain,” said Okragly.

In addition, the carcass weight of the back-logged cattle will be heavier, by about 48 pounds per head – “that’s a lot of tonnage on the market.”

The heavier carcasses and backlog will play together and cause a build-up of numbers,” he continued. How that will work itself out with the resumption of normal supplies, “is hard to tell.” The industry has never experienced anything like this. “There is no play book for what lies ahead.”

One positive of the situation is the grain and corn prices are low, which Okragly hopes remain low. “We need to market the beef and hope and pray for a big beef demand, domestically,” said Okragly. Even at that, Okragly said he expects a market lower than it was last year at the same time – but he added predicting the cattle market is like predicting the weather.

Wacker explained that ninety percent of the calves raised in Montana are shipped to “mid-west feedlot states.” Weighing 500-600 pounds the calves are fattened to about 1400 pounds and then sold to one of the four major packing companies.

About 15 percent – around 300,000 head — of Montana calves are retained by growers who “winter” them and then sell them in the spring as “yearlings” that weigh about 950 to 1500 pounds to be “finished” in Montana feed lots.

There are no major packing plants in the state. Wacker said that he wished there were.  “I would love to see more [cattle] stay in Montana. , I would love to see more competition.  I’d like to see feed lots and a nice processing plant,” he said, “It would be a great growth thing for the state.”

Even though traffic at the Billings Airport has dropped to just 5 percent of normal levels, the facility will go forward in sound financial condition thanks to substantial grants from the federal government under the CARES Act, according to Kevin Ploehn, Director of Aviation  & Transit, in his report to the Aviation and Transit Commission during their regular monthly meeting.

Impacts to the MET in Billings by the COVID-19 crisis have not been as severe.

“While March started out great, by mid-March traffic was falling off drastically.” reported Ploehn regarding airport boardings. During April the Airport was doing  96 TSA screenings per day on average, as opposed to 1,197 in April 2019.

All industries related to travel were seeing decimated revenues, said  Ploehn, and airlines had already had voluntary layoffs and early retirement buyouts to reduce the number of employees and costs.

Ploehn said that he did not think things would return to normal until the Summer of 2021, and maybe later if people change their attitude about travel, use technology more for virtual meetings, there are more social distancing requirements, and if people cannot afford to travel. The airline industry is likely to be much smaller in the “near future.”

Ploehn projected that the Billings Airport would see a revenue shortfall of $4 million to $5 million, mostly due to a drop in concession and airline revenues. However, they will be very well compensated for that loss with the $12,721,011 the Airport was allocated under the CARES Act, which will cover two or three years of revenue shortfalls.

Additionally, the CARES Act included other benefits for airports such as dropping the requirement for matching the regular 2020 AIP funds. The Feds will pay 100 percent. The change could be worth $700,000 to $800,000 to the Airport depending on how much in AIP (Airport Improvement Program) Discretionary funds the Airport receives this year. 

In order to shed some costs to the Airport, two of the Airport Police Officers were reassigned to MET Transit to patrol the transfer centers and bus stops due to transient issues.  Additionally, some custodial staff will transfer to MET and do deep cleaning and other tasks to enhance the cleanliness of the MET facilities.  No seasonal employees will be hired, some maintenance contracts were halted, and very little capital dollars will be spent this year.

Ridership on MET buses was down 31 percent in March, which was largely accounted for by the decline in student riders, since the schools were closed. MET continued to have 600 to 800 passengers daily.  However, MET too will be saved from financial hardship by funding from the CARES Act. MET received an allocation totaling $5,358,483.  Ploehn said that this additional funding would keep MET fiscally sound for a number of years.

Benefits of the CARES Act funds include, no expiration, all expenses 100 percent reimbursed, and the funds can be used for capital procurements or projects.

Since the direct purchase of tickets from the drivers became a safety concern, fares were waived for April and May, which costs the city enterprise around $48,000 per month. MET staff has put together a Request for Proposals for an Electronic Fare Collection System so that passengers may buy their tickets electronically to avoid the interaction with the driver.  Individual fares only account for approximately 10 percent  of MET revenue.

Ploehn noted that the CARES Act also changed the regular 5307 operating grant from a 50/50 Federal/Local match to 100% Federal for items related to COVID-19, which MET can use for the two Airport Police Officers working for MET and the hours of the Airport Custodial to clean MET facilities.

Construction of the $60 million Terminal Expansion Project is progressing. The anticipated funding for the project will come from AIP grants at $29,100,000; PFCs of $1,600,000; financing or bond funds of $24,000,000, and $5,300,000 of Airport local match funds for a total of $60,000,000.

A Request for Qualifications was advertised for financial institutions interested in the financing of the Terminal Expansion Project.

The impact of the disruption of our economy with the business shutdowns across the nation, due to the COVID-19 crisis, is yet to be understood and will be full of surprises. But one thing is certain, impacting as it is two of Montana’s basic industries – travel/tourism and agriculture – Montanans are in for a lot of changes and probably a bumpy ride.

One aspect of those changes is already making the headlines – the production and processing of beef. Although a long-standing problem that has frequently elicited complaints and controversy among livestock growers and the ag community, for the first time in his tenure, Governor Steve Bullock has addressed the issue with a letter to the USDA.

Attorney General Tim Fox, and gubernatorial candidate, has joined forces with other states demanding an investigation of price fixing charges. Other politicians, too, are now proclaiming that something must be done.

What’s prompted the sudden interest? Consumer awareness of the issue, says one local economics expert, Ed Ulledalen, Billings.

The whole issue comes down to what the consumer wants, says Ulledalen, and for the most part US consumers wanted low-priced products. They are usually not aware of how the market works and what risks might exist. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the nation’s vulnerability in several regards, most especially in our food and medicine supplies.

As an independent financial consultant, Ulledalen deals “with all kinds of farmers and ranchers,” in Montana, and he has long understood that “this is an on- the- ground concern of a lot of farmers and ranchers.” Now, “with the meat shortage it has become a kitchen table concern.”

Shortages on grocery store shelves have captured consumer awareness. “The bell rang when you walked into Costco and the meat counter was empty,” said Ulledalen.

That awareness is going to bring about changes – changes that could mean the unraveling of the way the economy has been functioning. What all that will entail is uncertain, but it will most definitely mean changes for Montana.

The question becomes, why don’t we have meat? said Ulledalen. Answering that question requires going down “all the rabbit trails.”

“It is not something to reverse quickly. It will take years.” Ulledalen suggested that low-costs will go away and “our meat industry will be more like it is in Europe. They don’t have the same kind of structure.”

Consumers will direct the changes.

Consumer demand for cheaper products has driven the industrialization of all kinds of markets, and it has resulted in the “industrialization of the food chain,” explained Ulledalen.

What we are going to see is a reversal of “50 years of globalization,” he added.

Little realized is how much concentration there is of beef processing plants. And, that foreign countries operate two of the four companies that dominate the US market, including China that owns Smithfield Foods, based in Virginia and with a plant in South Dakota. To underscore the cultural as well as the economic status of the industry, Ulledalen pointed out that within the Smithfield plant, 40 different languages are spoken.

About the economy in general, Ulledalen says there is lots of uncertainty — “the bad economic news hasn’t even come out yet.”

“The Federal Reserve and the federal government have weighed in so hard that they have stopped us from going into a second recession,” said Ulledalen. It is still unclear, however, what the consequences are going to be over the next five or ten years, “because you screwed up the world economy, not just the US.”

“We are going to get some kind of surge as the restrictions are lifted. Some business will come back but …maybe 20 percent of the economy won’t come back.” Especially vulnerable, and of most important to Montana, are the travel industry and agriculture. And, “it’s not to be resolved in a matter of weeks.”

Said Ulledalen, “We have a biological contagion that has potential to morph into a financial contagion and an economic hard –stop. An “economic hard stop” is very unlike most descents into a recession, which usually happen in gradual and incremental weakening in various market segments.

Most beef processing in the US is done through four companies, Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and National Beef. While there was a time when there were many meat processors scattered throughout most states, the industry has been concentrated for many decades, a situation that is sure to create problems – such as the ability to control prices.

Attorneys General from 11 states, including Montana’s Tim Fox, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, asking him to investigate possible price fixing among the country’s four largest beef processors, who control 80 percent of the industry.

President Trump threw his weight behind the request, sending his own request that the federal agency proceed with an investigation. He pointed out that supply and demand forces, within a competitive market environment, should prevent price gaps from playing out to the extent that they have in the U.S. meat-packing industry.

According to an Associated Press report,  a  disparity in the price of live cattle and the retail cost of boxed beef that is sold to consumers, “shows the market lacks fair competition.” According to the report, “Live cattle futures recently hit 18-year lows, while both the price of boxed beef and consumer demand remain healthy as consumers stockpile meat in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The state attorneys general suggested that if, after an investigation, there is no appropriate enforcement action that can be pursued, regulatory strategies should be explored to promote competition. A suggestion that even Montana’s Governor seems to believe is worth considering.

Nuances of regulations in the industry has left tons of beef sitting in lockers during the COVID-19 crisis with no place to go. The distribution system for grocery stores is different than that which serves institutions like schools and hospitals. School closures have left them with unused supplies but because it has a different “stamp” on it, and has gone through a different inspection process than those that serve retail markets, regulations prohibit the product from being sold elsewhere or even given away.

Requests to the USDA to allow the Montana Department of Livestock to consider modified protocols have been denied.

Governor Bullock’s letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asked that regulations be temporarily set aside to prevent the food from going to waste, at a time when it is needed in other areas. He also asked that the regulatory agency set aside some rules to allow some local processing in order to avoid food waste.

Perhaps even more significantly, Bullock suggested that the USDA encourage new ideas to reduce barriers for Montana meat processing capacity and improve markets for rural producers in Montana over the long term.

His suggestion is nothing new. For decades everyone from beef producers, to would-be local butchers, to restaurants and other consumers, have had a wide range of complaints about an industry that cannot adjust to demands. Could this be the impetus for long awaited change?