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Wyoming Ranchers In Butchering Bind Are Selling Beef Directly To Consumers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt America's food chain. There's a backlog of beef cattle due to labor shortages and closures at meatpacking plants, and some producers are still struggling to get their product to market. The state of Wyoming has now given ranchers a new option to bypass the plants and sell directly to consumers. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska has this report. In.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

KAMILA KUDELSKA, BYLINE: Annia Carter stands in the middle of a pond water up to her knees. Her husband, R.C., is watching intently. They are a ranch family near the Big Horn Mountains in north central Wyoming. Annia is looking over a fresh cowhide that they left overnight in the water.

ANNIA CARTER: Oh, my gosh. It's full of snails. Do you see them? It's cleaned up a lot of it.

KUDELSKA: They look it over and decide maybe it needs a little more time for the bugs and fish to eat the flesh.

A CARTER: We're really trying to respect the whole animal and use everything and really get our hands on it.

KUDELSKA: Until this July, this would have been illegal - not cleaning a cow hide in a pond, but butchering the animal themselves and selling the meat directly to consumers. A cow sold to restaurants or retailers has to be processed at a USDA-certified facility.

CATHERINE WISSNER: In order to sell one across state lines, sell to professional private shops and to restaurants and to sell at the farmer's market.

KUDELSKA: Rancher Catherine Wissner says the problem is lots of those facilities are maxed out because spring labor shortages from coronavirus caused a backlog of cows, which continues.

WISSNER: I was taking some steers in, and I had to set an appointment a year in advance to get those steers in. It's created kind of an interesting dilemma for me, and no farmer's market sales. So that's a financial impact.

KUDELSKA: A study by Oklahoma State University estimates that total COVID-19-related losses to the cattle industry this year will $9.2 billion. The backlog is affecting both big multinational meatpacking companies and small local processors. This summer, Wyoming, which calls itself the Cowboy State, passed the country's only law allowing ranchers to bypass USDA-certified facilities in some cases and butcher and sell their own animals. State Representative Tyler Lindholm, who introduced the measure, explains.

TYLER LINDHOLM: What a rancher now can do is they can fractionalize or put shares on an entire herd of animals. And so they can sell shares for say, like, a dollar apiece, which means everyone that owns a share of that entire herd of animals can now shop right out of that rancher's freezer.

KUDELSKA: That only applies to direct-to-consumer sales inside Wyoming. Beef headed to restaurants or grocery stores still has to be butchered at a USDA-certified facility. Butchering and processing is labor intensive, but ranchers like R.C. Carter are willing to take some on. He says he can make a profit and still offer locals affordable food.

R C CARTER: You know, we're just keeping it all local and just, like, in the community to help support our community and lower the prices of their product and, you know, just support what is here and what money is here, keep it here.

KUDELSKA: Carter says he looks forward to butchering more cows on his ranch and using as much of the animal as he can, maybe even sell the hide. For NPR News, I'm Kamila Kudelska in Cody, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.