Shifts in legislation allow for more food options

SHERIDAN — While many have adjusted to a toilet paper shortage to the point of making jokes, Americans may now be facing a shortage of meat and dairy thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wyoming has made significant strides when it comes to allowing local foods on the market, and this could mean alternatives are available as meat processing facilities shut down across the nation. 

Industrial processing plants from South Dakota to Washington and Minnesota, with big names like Tyson and Smithfield, have shut down amid coronavirus outbreaks.

This means shelves might be bare for shoppers, but not necessarily that there is a food shortage. In fact, some producers are finding it hard to move their products, with the supply disruption in the industrial food complex.

Enter direct-to-consumer local sales.

“I don’t think it is quite like an apples to apples comparison when you are talking about local foods versus what you can go into the grocery store and get,” said Christine Hampshire, who runs a cow calf operation and local dairy with her family in Leiter. Cross E Ranch and Dairy has been providing local meat and dairy to the Gillette and Sheridan area for years.

“Local producers are reaching a much higher quality product,” Hampshire said. “We are not necessarily a replacement, but we are trying to be another option.”

In 2015, Wyoming became the first state in the nation to adopt food freedom laws, deregulating the sale of many local products direct from the producer to the consumer. Sponsored by Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, the Food Freedom Act has led to zero incidents of food borne illnesses in five years.

While the initial Food Freedom Act did not apply to the sale of individual cuts of meat, Lindholm passed an amendment to the law in the last legislative session that allows for that through animal share. Per the amendment, animal share allows for an ownership interest in an animal or herd of animals created by a written contract between an informed end consumer and a farmer or rancher. It must include a bill of sale to the consumer for an ownership interest in the animal or herd, and thus the consumer is entitled to receive a share of meat from the animal or herd.

“I’ve been looking to get red meat into the act for five, six years,” he explained. “Agriculture in Wyoming is in large part a protein-driven sector. (I support) local agrarians, local ranchers, local farmers in the product that they are producing, with the ideology that they are able to move toward working directly with their consumers.”

Jim Magagna, president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said that no one was anticipating a global pandemic disrupting the food supply when Lindholm introduced his bill — or even the amendment in January.

“This has certainly added a new dimension of it,” Magagna said. “This just gives an opportunity to better meet consumer demand … for wanting to know where your food comes from, wanting to buy locally when you can to being able to meet that and do it in a way that is feasible for the livestock producers.”

Hampshire said that her family’s primary business is their cow calf operation with about 500 head of cattle.

“We are just like everyone in the area. We have our calves and market them in the fall, and for the dairy, we always had a family milk cow growing up. I grew up on raw milk, and just started getting asked about it years back … People were asking five or so years ago if they could purchase it, and it just took off from there,” she explained.

Hampshire said she’s grateful for knowledgeable consumers in Sheridan County.

“I think there are a lot of people that had a mindset of looking for a quality product,” she said. “I have been able to grow the business a lot, even before (the coronavirus). I do think there have been a lot of good conversations that have grown out of this crisis, and it has caused people to ask a lot more about local foods.”

When it comes to locally produced beef sold under an animal share agreement, the idea is the same: Offer an alternative, local product to what is available on a larger, mass produced commercial level.

“We already do sell some of our beef directly to consumers,” Hampshire said, explaining that it has been legal to do so if the meat is processed at a state-inspected facility. Under the new animal share option, meat can be processed at any one of Wyoming’s 20-plus processors, but there are still limitations to both arrangements. There is only one state-inspected facility near Cross E Ranch, and to develop an animal share, contractual herd share agreements have to be drafted and signed.

“They are two different options that we will have to investigate and decide which one is best for us,” Hampshire said.

There are also limitations on how dairy can be sold under the Food Freedom Act. Hampshire has to do direct delivery or sell her products at the Saturday farmers market at Landon’s. Raw dairy must be handled properly and is temperature sensitive, and cannot yet be sold in stores. Nonetheless, Hampshire said it is important consumers have access to local products.

“A lot of times, local products are fitting a different need,” Hampshire said, adding that some people who can’t tolerate pasteurized dairy thrive on raw milk.

And there is the shorter supply chain with none of the obstacles like shut-downs of large-scale processors, she said.

“However, if we don’t invest in those local producers all the time, then it is not there when there is a crisis and there is a need,” Hampshire said. “If next week, you tell me you need x amount of more gallons, that is not an easy thing to go out and do, buy more cows or upscales … it is not the nature of these businesses to upscale that quickly.

“If we aren’t investing in the local producers all the time, then they are just not there when we need them,” she said.