Top Ten #6: Sheep
This year was full of setbacks for sheep ranchers in Sanpete County. Many local lamb growers came dangerously close to going belly up after a foreign meat packing monopoly had a stranglehold on their livelihood.
Rising cost of feed, problems with supply chains and other issues (many of which were triggered by the pandemic) were bad enough, but when Brazilian meat packing giant JBS set the wheels in motion to discontinue the processing of lamb in a vital Greeley, Colo. packing facility, it very nearly spelled the end for many lamb growers in Sanpete and all over the western U.S.
The plant, known as Mountain States Rosen (MSR), was the only place for the ranchers in 15 western states to have their lambs slaughtered and packed into distributable packaging. The Brazilian company acquired MSR, as it was in financial trouble, and announced the facility would switch to handling beef only.
The announcement caused a major stir among sheep ranchers in Sanpete and elsewhere who saw it as a direct attack on the western domestic lamb industry. JBS is responsible for a giant portion of the lamb that is imported into the U.S., making it the competitor of domestic lamb growers. By pulling the plug on lamb processing at MSR, ranchers had no place to have their lambs processed and were forced to either sell them at a loss or continue to feed them past their optimal harvest weight until they found a new option for processing and packing.
“The abrupt closure of this plant before ranchers can make arrangements to replace it will force sheep ranchers across several Western states into financial ruin and extinction,” wrote Carson Jorgensen of Skyline Sheep Co. in a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the Utah Congressional Delegation and representatives from several Western states who also stood to lose their lamb industries with the buyout. “This will result in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of jobs and the end of a historic American industry.”
It couldn’t come at a worse time, says Jorgensen. Complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, unstable meat prices and a steady stream of cheap foreign lamb imports—many of which are backed by JBS themselves—have already put the American sheep industry at risk.
Jorgensen’s plea for help did not fall on deaf ears. Utah Senator Mike Lee, five other senators and six members of the House of Representatives penned their own letter to Justice Department Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim after hearing of the lamb industry’s plight.
“We urge you to immediately open an investigation into this acquisition and demand that JBS cease from any irreversible actions that might harm the ability of American sheep ranchers to get their products to market until the Department can determine how best to protect competition in this significant part of America’s food supply,” Lee wrote.
Thanks to the letters from ranchers and lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) placed a 30 day stay order on the JBS shutdown of lamb processing at MSR, but it ultimately still went forward. The saving grace for the situation came when a Colorado ranch family, the Hasbroucks of Double J Meat Packing took over the processing plant that was once Ranchers Lamb of Texas in San Angelo, Texas.
“It hasn’t been used in quite a few years, so there’s a lot of work to do,” said Jeff Hasbrouck, son of Jay Hasbrouck and manager of Double J Lamb Feeders.
The new plant will serve ranchers from more than a dozen western states who lost their only other place to have their lambs slaughtered, processed and packed with the JBS buyout of MSR.
“We felt like we had to do something for our customers and for the industry, so we reached out and toured the plant in San Angelo and felt like this was a good fit for us,” Hasbrouck said. “It’s a nice facility, but it just needs a little bit of work.”
Although reopening the plant will take some effort, the Hasbroucks say they are up to the challenge.