Even as consumers pay more for meat at grocery stores, ranchers like Watson have struggled to earn a high enough price for their cattle from meat processors. He’s seen most of the other small farmers in the area give up cattle ranching altogether because it isn’t as profitable.
He and other cattle ranchers are increasingly upset by the thin margins they earn, driving a large number of farmers to bankruptcy. Meanwhile, according to the Department of Agriculture, giant meat processors have earned record profits in an industry worth well over $200 billion.
In addition to the struggle to remain profitable, Watson saw how the pandemic put the supply chain for meat in serious peril — with outbreaks shutting down plants and leading to some scarcity early on.
The pandemic has shined a bright light on the tension between farmers and processors, causing members of the Biden administration, a bipartisan group of politicians and advocates to push for greater oversight of the meatpacking industry. They blame meat conglomerates for driving up costs for consumers, keeping profits from farmers and leaving elements of the food supply chain vulnerable.
Damon Watson is a fourth generation cattle rancher in rural Oklahoma, and his son and daughter hope to be the fifth. In recent years, however, it has become more difficult to envision that future: The profitability of the farm has fallen and opportunities in Council Hill, a town 60 miles south of Tulsa with slightly more than 100 people, continue to dry up.
“Most people have options if you’re selling something,” Watson said. “For farmers and ranchers, you get told by the packers what you’re going to get for it and you better hope you’re happy with it.”
As a result, Watson has created his own option earlier this year, employing 16 people to open a small meat processing plant for his farm and a few other ranches in the area. It’s one of 19 new small plants that opened in Oklahoma this year largely inspired by meat production slowdowns during the pandemic and frustration with the traditional industry.
“A lot of people weren’t going to have a place to get their meat processed because so many processors were shut, so they wouldn’t be able to sell their stuff,” Watson said, adding that his entire family ethos has come down to supporting the local community.
Opening the small processing plant has given ranchers another option, he said, so they can market their meat locally.