The Montana Stockgrowers Association’s $300 million deal with the Chinese eCommerce company JD.com will likely put more money in the pockets of ranchers in southwest Montana, local legislators and ranchers say.
The stockgrowers' association announced Wednesday that it will supply $200 million worth of Montana-sourced beef to JD.com and that JD intends to invest up to another $100 million to build a new processing facility in Montana.
State Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, represents Beaverhead County, the top ranking beef-producing county in Montana. In 2016, Beaverhead had 155,000 head of cattle, 35,000 more than the next largest beef-producing county, Yellowstone.
Welborn said Wednesday that, as with any deal, “the devil is in the details,” but that it looks as though the JD agreement should be a boon for Montana beef producers.
“I feel that any way we can add value to local agricultural communities (is beneficial),” said Welborn.
Montana hasn’t had a large-scale meatpacking plant in 33 years, and today a majority of the state’s beef cattle are shipped to large feedlots in the Midwest, where they are later transferred to processing facilities and slaughterhouses.
But the presence of a large-scale slaughterhouse in Montana, such as the one the JD deal proposes to build, would mean that more steps in the process could come back to the state, which Welborn says will put more money in the pockets of Montana ranchers, who would no longer have to ship their cattle on a 20-hour journey to the Midwest.
Bryan Mussard agrees.
“The cattle would be born, raised, fed and processed in Montana,” said Mussard. “This would bring all of that home to Montana.”
Mussard is president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. He’s also a Dillon native, owns the Reminisce Angus Ranch nine miles west of Dillon, and has worked in cattle ranching for 33 years.
“I just love cows,” said Mussard when asked what has kept him in the industry so long.
Mussard couldn’t disclose which locations the stockgrowers’ association are assessing for the potential $100 million slaughterhouse — which is mostly a done deal, he said — but said that the locations reside mostly in southwest and southeast Montana.
Even though the facility won’t go up tomorrow, Mussard said ranchers can start selling their meat to JD.com as early as spring by signing up with the stockgrowers’ association. The process involves ear-tagging cattle to track their movements and origin because the Chinese are “very particular” about knowing where their meat comes from, Mussard said. He added that Chinese consumers are also enthusiastic about the Montana brand and that JD, which distributes food via the internet, similar to Amazon, plans to market some of the meat as Montana made.
“They absolutely love Montana,” said Mussard. “They love the West.”
Karen Byrnes, Butte-Silver Bow community development director, said the county is always interested in bringing new jobs to Butte when asked if Silver Bow would be interested in pursuing the $100 million slaughterhouse.
“Well of course, I have to say yes,” said Byrnes. “We would look at every opportunity — 100 percent.”
However, she added it’s too early to say if Butte would attempt to court the stockgrowers’ association and JD without knowing what their requirements are for things like logistics and transportation.
Republican State Rep. Ray Shaw has lived in Sheridan his entire life.
The three-term legislator grew up in a ranching family, was a rancher himself and today owns a ranch that he leases to a Sheridan family.
For him, and for many others in Sheridan, ranching is a way of life.
“I come from cowboy country,” said Shaw, pointing out that there are about 7,500 residents in Madison County and about 50,000 cattle. “That’s our livelihood.”
Like many of the people who spoke with The Montana Standard, Shaw hadn’t gotten a chance to look over the finer points of the deal at the time of his interview, but said that, if the deal does what everyone hopes it will do, it’s sure to be an economic shot in the arm to both the agricultural industry and the state.
“This will be a tremendous boost to Montana and to our beef industry,” said Shaw.
Shaw pointed out that agriculture is the number one economic driver in the state, contributing $4.6 billion to the state’s economy in 2015 and boasting a total livestock value of about $2.1 billion that same year, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture.
But it’s not just about the numbers. It’s also about the people.
“These producers and the farmers … these guys are the backbone of our communities,” said Shaw.
In speaking with Shaw it’s easy to see that beef raised in the Big Sky Country is a point of pride for the state legislator.
“Montana beef is the best in the country,” said Shaw.
When asked why he feels that way, he replied simply, “it just is.”